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Colorado’s water supply future

Cooperation vs. Competition Coloradans in search of common ground and workable solutions


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I fell in love with Colorado largely because of the so-called non-consumptive uses of water. I was a raft guide on the Poudre River in college. But, it was my next job, at the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, that taught me about the complexities of water management. Without the ditches, dams, tunnels and reservoirs used to store water and move it around, Colorado couldn’t sustain the many industries, farms and cities that it has today. But, if the state population doubles as predicted, and if water-intensive industries such as oil shale take off, how will the same rivers and streams provide enough water? And how do we reconcile our increasing awareness of the streamflows necessary to sustain healthy fish populations or make sure our rivers are still fun to play on? Though I moved to Colorado more than a decade ago, I’m one of many who could be dubbed “imported,” adding to the state’s population—and its future water demand—daily. So, in the midst of editing this issue, I couldn’t help becoming vested in the outcome of the Interbasin Compact Process, through which dedicated people are seeking solutions to this conundrum. When I turn on the faucet, I think of Caroline Bradford of the Colorado River Basin who pointed out that at the other end of the pipe is a living ecosystem. I remem-

ber Chips Barry of Denver Water, who is negotiating solutions for Denverites like myself but recognizes pragmatism demands the state be careful with the final appropriation of Colorado River water. I imagine Steve Vandiver feeling the weight of figuring out how to encourage farmers to quit farming while the Rio Grande Basin’s aquifers recover. And I hear the Yampa Basin’s Kent Vertrees’ voice in my head, expressing his hope that the last free-flowing river in Colorado won’t be dammed. There are many more people involved, of course, and I’m rooting for them too, because I want to live here and have clean water piped into my home, but I also want to see the farms and the rivers win. The issues are complicated. The process is convoluted. But the players are persevering through mind-numbing analyses and difficult conversations. We hope this issue will be helpful to Coloradans as the basin roundtables and the IBCC pursue their charge of engaging the public, because ultimately, that’s what the Interbasin Compact Process is about—people coming together to plan for a future we can all look forward to. I’ll drink some water to that.

Jayla Poppleton Jayla Poppleton Editor

In this issue of Headwaters magazine, we chronicle how Colorado has entered into the most comprehensive and public dialogue ever attempted about the state’s water future. Citizen roundtables are reaching across hydrologic divides to address questions which have often resulted in division rather than agreement.  As with every issue of Headwaters, our intent in publishing the magazine is to educate Coloradans and inform decisionmaking.  Through formal surveys and informal conversations, the Foundation has asked many of you for your feedback on Headwaters.  The responses are overwhelmingly positive, and I believe that the Foundation has come to be defined by this publication. I am very proud that we have been able to produce something that is regarded so highly by so many. I hope each copy is read cover-tocover, filed away for future reference, and pulled out to help others learn. And from the conversations I have had, it seems that many of you do just that. In many instances, Headwaters has been used by our members to achieve their own outreach and educational goals. The publication gives water providers, watershed groups, educators, and engineering and law firms the materials they need to reach their audiences.  The impact of each issue of Headwaters is thus multiplied.  As much as you rely on us for producing the balanced and accurate information relayed in each issue, we rely on you to distribute it to your customers, friends and stakeholders. All of Headwaters’ past issues are available on the Foundation’s Web site.  We intend them to be an ongoing source of water education, not only for Coloradans, but also throughout the West and beyond The Foundation will have a presence at many conferences, workshops and meetings over the coming summer. When you see us, please make sure to stop by, say hello and grab a stack of Headwaters to distribute to your network. Your assistance in getting this information out to a wide audience is critical to our educational mission. Thank you. Nicole Seltzer Executive Director

Colorado Foundation for Water Education 1580 Logan St., Suite 410 •  Denver, CO 80203 303-377-4433 • www.cfwe.org

Colorado’s water supply future

Mission Statement

Cooperation vs. Competition?

The mission of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education is to promote better understanding of water resources through education and information. The Foundation does not take an advocacy position on any water issue.

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Coloradans in searCh of Common ground and workable solutions

On the Cover: The rugged San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado give rise to the Rio Grande and San Juan rivers and to tributaries of the Dolores and Gunnison rivers. (iStockPhoto.com)

Board Members Matt Cook President

Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr. 1st Vice President

Rita Crumpton

2nd Vice President

HEADWATERS | S pring 2009 Interbasin Compact Process 101 Ins and outs of Colorado’s latest approach to water planning...... 2

Wendy Hanophy

Colorado’s Water for the 21st Century Act Finally doing the right thing?........................................................... 5

Taylor Hawes

Envisioning an Alternate Future IBCC takes aim at status quo approach to water planning............ 9

Dale Mitchell

A Numbers Game What the technical work surrounding the Interbasin Compact Process reveals.............................................. 11


Assistant Secretary Treasurer

Alan Hamel

Assistant Treasurer

Becky Brooks Tom Cech Rep. Kathleen Curry Alexandra Davis Veva Deheza Jennifer Gimbel Callie Hendrickson Sen. Jim Isgar Chris Piper John Porter Chris Rowe Rick Sackbauer Robert Sakata Steve Vandiver Reagan Waskom


Nicole Seltzer Executive Director

David Harper Office Manager

Kristin Maharg Education Program Associate

Basin Roundtables............................................................................................16 North Platte Basin........................................................................... 18 South Platte Basin........................................................................... 20 Metro .............................................................................................. 22 Arkansas Basin................................................................................ 23 Rio Grande Basin............................................................................ 25 Southwest Basin............................................................................. 26 Gunnison Basin............................................................................... 28 Colorado Basin................................................................................ 30 Yampa/White/Green Basin.............................................................. 32 Whose Plan is it Anyway? Perhaps the state should take the lead in water planning. Maybe it should maintain a supportive role. What will it take to ensure water for all?....................................................................... 34 On the Web Please visit the Web site of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education for additional content related to this issue. View a panoramic photograph of the Interbasin Compact Committee from its March meeting while listening to sound bytes from various participants speaking on the issues. Also, read a more detailed account of each basin roundtable’s activities and priorities at www.cfwe.org. Headwaters is a magazine designed to provide Colorado citizens with balanced and accurate information on a variety of subjects related to water resources. Copyright 2009 by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. ISSN: 1546-0584 Edited by Jayla Poppleton. Designed by Emmett Jordan. Acknowledgments The Colorado Foundation for Water Education thanks the Intrastate Water Management and Development Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board for funding production of this issue, as well as the people and organizations who provided review, comment and assistance in its development.

Faces of the IBCC—At the March 2009 meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee, photographer Kevin Moloney asked participants to create a self-portrait using a remote camera release. Wright, who represents Rio Grande County on the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, and Vanderscheure, El Paso County’s municipal representative to the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, are two of the Interbasin Compact Committee’s 27 members.

Interbasin Compact Process


Ins and outs of Colorado’s latest approach to water planning

Six years ago the state of Colorado undertook its first-ever statewide


assessment of local water supplies and demands through the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, commonly known as SWSI. In 2005, the Colorado Legislature voted to further that effort, passing the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act in House Bill 1177. The legislation established the Interbasin Compact Process, which aims to develop a collective understanding of the state’s overall water supply needs and to devise solutions for meeting those needs in the future. The process, which is also referred to as the IBCC Process or 1177 Process, brings together diverse players from across the state who are working from a local level while gaining a statewide perspective.


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Davis is Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources Assistant Director for Water. Crumpton was appointed to the IBCC by former Gov. Bill Owens. The staff for the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Intrastate Water Management and Development Section (right) provides assistance to the IBCC.

HB 1177 created two new forums. At the grassroots level, the law authorized the creation of nine roundtables corresponding to river basins—or, in some cases, several lumped together—plus one for the Denver metropolitan area. Within the roundtables each municipality in the basin must be represented, plus each county government and each water conservancy or water conservation district. The legislation’s formula also confirms representation by environmental, agricultural and recreational interests in addition to those who speak for domestic water, irrigation companies and industrial rights. Still three more chairs are allotted to non-voting members from outside the basin who represent entities that either own water rights or have other interests within the basin; there is an exception—the Colorado Basin Roundtable has seven chairs for this purpose. Most roundtables have 30 to 50 members. The basin roundtables initially focused on organizing themselves by identifying members, establishing bylaws and educating themselves about their basin’s issues. Then the roundtables were instructed to assess both their basins’ consumptive water needs as well as nonconsumptive needs and to propose projects or other methods that could meet those needs. The roundtables are relying, in part, upon work previously conducted through SWSI. After three years of preparation, the

roundtables’ reports, called needs assessments, are now being completed. The Legislature also created a statewide forum called the Interbasin Compact Committee, often called by its acronym, IBCC. The IBCC has 27 members, including two representatives from each roundtable. Six at-large members are appointed by the governor; two slots are filled by the chairpersons for the House and Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resource Committees; and the final member is chosen by the IBCC’s director of compact negotiations. These appointments are made to ensure diversity of interest-based and geographical representation. The IBCC was charged with creating an Interbasin Compact Charter containing rules to guide voluntary negotiations between roundtables. It is also intended to facilitate dialogue between basins, hopefully encouraging formerly competing interests to collaborate for each other’s benefit. An underlying purpose of the legislation is to unify the state as each basin develops greater understanding not only of its own water supply challenges, but also those of the other basins. Both the roundtables and the IBCC are working to inform and involve the public in their activities. All meetings are open. Calendars and additional background information can be found at: www.ibcc.state.co.us. q Colorado’s snow-capped peaks harbor its primary water supply, which may be affected by climate change in the future.

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Colorado’s Water for the 21 Century Act


Finally doing the right thing? By George Sibley

Unbelievably, the 2005 Water for the 21st Century Act sailed through Colorado’s General Assembly on the first try. A deeper look at the history of Colorado water in the 20th century makes the fast passage of the Act in the early 21st century look at least as inevitable as unbelievable. On one hand, the state passed the millennial mark confronting a substantial gap between current water supplies and future needs; and on the other, a number of traditional efforts to address that gap had been stalled or shut down. Colorado had hit a stalemate, and, in Winston Churchill’s words, other possibilities had been exhausted. The stalemate and its roots Through the first three-quarters of Colorado’s 20th century, increasingly ambitious water development projects were constructed on both sides of the Continental Divide. The largest ones were built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, ostensibly to provide water and power for agricultural and rural development. But the bigger story in Colorado was that of a growing metropolis that leveraged population and wealth to import large quantities of water from increasing distances. Water doesn’t exactly flow toward money, as the maxim goes, but money is able to engineer water’s movement. Denver Water led the way in this, but Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and the municipal subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District also reached out into the state for water, and now the South Metro suburbs are stirring and looking around. Two events circa 1990 seemed to bring Colorado’s large-scale urban water development lurching to a halt. In 1988, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners denied a construction permit to Aurora and Colorado Springs for their Homestake II Project, designed to divert water from Eagle River tributaries in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The U.S. Forest Service, with oversight of the land, had approved the project. But local concerns about environmental impacts convinced the commissioners to assert their “1041 powers” under the 1974

Areas and Activities of State Interest Act to deny the cities the local permit they needed. The cities sued the commissioners for this impertinence, but the Colorado Supreme Court upheld their action. Then, in 1990 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the Two Forks Project, which Denver Water and a number of metropolitan suburbs had been planning since the 1970s. The massive reservoir in the foothills southwest of Denver would have collected water from both sides of the divide. Project opponents convinced the EPA the cities had not taken sufficient conservation and efficiency measures to warrant such a high-impact project. Two Forks proponents appealed, but in 1996 the federal district court upheld the decision and Two Forks was shelved. Attitudes toward large water projects had shifted, and both federal and state legislation reflected the change. Colorado’s 1041 powers, imbued by HB 74-1041, gave county governments authority to create developmental regulations in areas of “state interest.” As Homestake II showed, 1041 enabled counties with good land use regulations and unified local support to deliver an enforceable challenge not only to the “great and growing cities,” but also to the federal government in interpretations of its own environmental law. The counties couldn’t “just say no” to water projects, but they could deny permits if projects didn’t meet reasonable standards for mitigating environmental, social and economic impacts. On a national level, increasingly pronounced water quality problems sparked passage of environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act in the early 1970s. From the start, such legislation had deep popular support, particularly in mountain communities where protecting the local environment and its water also protects the local economy. Such support is also surprisingly strong in cities themselves where people have a growing perception that constant growth, especially of the sprawling sort, is not that desirable; much of the

Emmett Jordan

The mountains of Colorado’s Front Range, viewed from near Greeley, shadow the region of the same name, which receives merely 10 percent of the state’s natural runoff and relies heavily on water diverted from the West Slope.


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“Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” —Winston Churchill

organized protest against Two Forks was based in the very cities that planned the project. These environmental laws, combined with the 1041 powers, leveled the field by allowing new players into decision-making about water, players who have historically had little standing in water law. Until recently, water courts themselves generally lacked legislative authority to consider environmental and economic impacts of diversions when reviewing water rights applications. Still today, they are only authorized to consider the impact of agricultural transfers involving more than 1,000 acre feet of water, and to require the in-lieu payment of taxes lost from the dry-up of agricultural lands due to out-of-county water transfers for up to 30 years. Local communities have objected not only to the injury that major out-ofbasin diversions cause to local environments and economies, but also to the accompanying insult of not having a chance to raise their concerns in court. Long-simmering frustrations have engendered feelings of hatred—not too strong a term—in both eastern and western Colorado toward the “water grabs” and “water steals” by Front Range cities despite the fact that the cities have never “stolen” any water. Chips Barry, Denver Water’s manager, observed that “under Colorado water law, there is no legal basis for complaint,” but he acknowledged that “there may be a moral basis for complaint from those in basins of origin.” The cities further fueled basin-of-origin communities’ anger by making West Slope residents feel like “a nuisance, a chigger or something,” says Barbara Green, general counsel for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, a group of five counties in the Upper Colorado River watershed. City utilities tended to show the same disrespect to their own neighbors. In a remarkably frank presentation on “The Maturing Metropolis” at the Colorado Water Workshop in 2005, Barry laid out the pre-Two Forks paradigm for urban water development: 1) File on as many water rights as possible in as

many places as possible, and keep all that as secret as possible; 2) design storage projects for those rights but don’t let anyone else know what you are doing; 3) be prepared to defend your projects against all attackers in court and to attack in court any projects which might threaten your yield. The sunny side of the appropriations doctrine is the democratic access it gives equitably to anyone irrespective of wealth to file on a water right; but its dark side is the adversarial and litigious “every man, or city, for himself” culture it spawned. Beginning to do the right thing With the one-two punches of Homestake II and Two Forks, things had changed. It now appeared relatively small communities on the West Slope, with the support of environmental organizations, could significantly delay or stop water projects. Those charged with providing water to a growing Front Range were forced to seek alternatives. After Two Forks’ veto, Gov. Roy Romer directed the metropolitan water managers who had collaborated on Two Forks to continue meeting but to focus on alternatives to mega-projects involving West Slope water. The group, which became the Front Range Water Forum, took its charge seriously. In 1999, members outlined strategies to maximize use of existing water in a report titled “Metropolitan Water Supply Investigation.” The Front Range districts have been working diligently on these strategies over the past decade, with a new breed of “mega-projects” underway, like Denver’s huge wastewater recycling program and Aurora’s Prairie Waters reuse project. Everyone on both sides of the divide realized, however, that conservation, efficiency and reuse would not eliminate the need to import new water from other basins for the growing cities of the Front Range, and people on the West Slope had no reason to rejoice that the cities were beginning to act as one—a really Big One.

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ritical s c a k r o eholde …it to k a t s of their mass y b d rate e frust ith th w e c en experi lture u c s u ado’s r o l o litigio C red by choose u t r u n aw to l r e t . wa rnative e t l a the

Barry, Denver Water’s manager since 1991, serves on the Metro Roundtable. Kemper is the executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, a non-profit organization that promotes cooperation amongst water users.

So in 1991, led by the NWCCOG, public officials in the upper reaches of the Colorado River invited Front Range water leaders and officials to “come talk,” presumably to discuss a requisite update of the state’s Water Quality Plan. It took a certain amount of coaxing to get enough big players from the Front Range to make the meeting worthwhile, but in early November 1991, a year after the Two Forks’ veto, 48 Upper Colorado and urban water leaders gathered in Winter Park. A cocktail party broke the ice; the following day was spent making each other’s acquaintance. The facilitators maintained a firm focus “on common ground, not old wounds.” By the end, everyone agreed to collaborate on water quality solutions, essentially abdicating the old paradigm of egocentric aim. Most significantly, they decided to continue meeting in what came to be called the Headwaters Forum. The forum, still in existence, has enabled a number of improvements or expansions to existing projects in the Upper Colorado tributaries to proceed, with benefits to both sides of the divide. This paradigm shift didn’t occur overnight. Rather, it took a critical mass of stakeholders frustrated by their experience with the litigious culture nurtured by Colorado’s water law to choose the alternative. Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress but manager of water resources for Aurora Utilities before that, suggests others like himself in metro area water management wondered, “Have we forgotten about sit6

ting down and talking about problems?” Somewhat suddenly—in relation to the previous century—that had become the logical thing to do. Evolution of a statewide approach By the late 1990s an old idea reemerged—that Colorado might develop a more formal process for statewide water planning. A state water plan had been partially drafted in the 1970s but abandoned. The effort was led by two young Colorado Department of Natural Resources employees: Chips Barry and Bill McDonald, who is now acting USBR commissioner. The report, “The Colorado Water Study, Directions for the Future,” discussed public interest values related to water use including fish and wildlife; recreation; wild and scenic rivers; water and land preservation trusts; and water banking. But the study never got legs. It did, however, illustrate an underlying principle of statewide water planning: percolate ideas and then let the political and local initiative process run its course. Several years following the study’s completion, the General Assembly established authority for the Colorado Water Conservation Board to manage a fish and wildlife resources fund that recognizes the role of instream flows and river restoration projects in mitigating water projects. Not all legislation was successful. Though West Slope legislators regularly introduced basin-of-origin protection bills, they were voted down by a unified Front Range, leaving the West Slope feeling vulnerable. But in 1998, Rep. Matt Smith from western Colorado’s Grand Valley introduced a

more comprehensive bill. Smith’s idea was to create “local, voluntary basin planning groups established to identify the present and future water needs, both consumptive and non-consumptive” in each of the state’s major river basins. These planning groups were to develop a credible water supply history for their basin and assemble a list of alternatives, “including processes or facilities required to address the identified water needs” and all “economic, technical, or regulatory impediments” to the development of those projects. The bill contained further instructions for the State Engineer and the CWCB to evaluate each basin’s list of projects and mitigation needs “from a statewide perspective.” The idea of basin planning groups was a step in the direction taken by the two existing forums, but the absence of instructions about who—what interests, entities, stakeholders—should participate in those groups proved, in retrospect, to be an oversight. This was partially addressed in the next evolution of the idea, the CWCB’s Statewide Water Supply Initiative, or SWSI, which the legislature approved in 2003. The CWCB is an arm of the Department of Natural Resources charged with developing water policy for the state, and its SWSI project was generally regarded, outside of the metro area, as an effort to change the CWCB’s image from being part of the rural-versus-urban problem to being part of the solution. The agency had acted largely on an apparent conviction that solving metropolitan water problems took precedence, and—right or wrong—this gained it

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“We a re no longe devel r oping a w we ar ater r e lear esour n ce; ing h share ow to a dev eloped —Jus resou tice G rce.” reg H obbs

Pifher, director of Aurora Water, is an alternate on the IBCC. Justice Hobbs has served on the Colorado Supreme Court for 13 years and has authored 21 of the court’s 73 water opinions during that time.

no friends in western Colorado. The SWSI Executive Summary seemed to acknowledge this in its statement that “developing trust and open communication would take time.” The SWSI process was a serious effort, however, to proactively address the state’s water supply challenges through a thorough “bottom-up, not top-down” analysis of state water supplies and demands. “Roundtables” were established in eight major watershed basins, with each roundtable formed by representatives of local governments, environmentalists, agricultural producers, recreational interests, and federal agencies, as well as all the usual “water buffalo” organizations. The first phase of the report, issued in 2004, revealed that nearly every basin in Colorado needed more water than it knew how or where to find. There have been challenges to specific SWSI figures and analyses, but it stands as the first comprehensive, relatively clear-eyed, and ultimately sobering look at the state’s overall water situation. Clearly, significant water development was needed statewide, some of it intrabasin, some of it interbasin. If solutions were to be sought through a process of democratic transparency and inclusion, then something like the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act might be considered inevitable— the right thing to be doing, after having exhausted many other possibilities. Colorado water for the 21st century The driving force behind the Act was Russell George. A West Sloper by birth

and inclination, he has spent most of his adult life in Denver in public service, first as a respected member of the legislature where he became speaker of the House of Representatives, then as director of Colorado’s Division of Wildlife and later executive director of its Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Bill Owens; currently, he is executive director of the state’s Department of Transportation. It was during his tenure at DNR that George began talking with people on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the divide about the possibility of an intrastate negotiating process like the interstate negotiations that led to Colorado’s river compacts with downstream states in all directions. In September 2004, in a keynote speech at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s fall seminar, he launched the idea that became the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act. Rep. Josh Penry from the Grand Valley and Sen. Jim Isgar from the San Juan River Basin carried HB 05-1177 and its Senate counterpart in the legislature that year—but not before it underwent many revisions in an attempt to address concerns that had been bubbling to the surface for decades. Eric Hecox, now chief of the CWCB’s Intrastate Water Management and Development section, took a leave of absence from the Bureau of Land Management to work full time with George on getting it right. The Act used the idea of roundtables from the SWSI process, but was careful to detail the makeup of the “1177 roundtables” to ensure all stakeholders were represented. It improved

on the SWSI division of the state by watersheds by creating a Metro Roundtable, the state’s “moneyshed,” separate from the South Platte Basin Roundtable. And it wisely—or maybe just necessarily—left many details of exactly what the roundtables and the statewide group, the Interbasin Compact Committee, could or should do to be worked out through the process itself. Ultimately, the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act may be as much a challenge as a solution—a challenge that will test our commitment to democratic process as things get noisy and messy down the road. The Act will do little to make life easier for urban water providers; but if they can honor, or at least tolerate, the legislated mandate for the democratic values of inclusion, access and transparency, the process might enable them to get some water projects underway again. Colorado water law being what it is—with the constitutional trump given to domestic use over all other uses including agriculture—it makes sense for Colorado’s smaller communities to remember the cities have problems too, problems they could be forced to resolve by condemning water rights if no alternative is negotiated. Moving forward, a couple of words from the wise might be kept in mind. One is Justice Greg Hobbs’ observation that “we are no longer developing a water resource; we are learning how to share a developed resource.” And the other is from Chips Barry, who has been walking his own talk since Two Forks’ demise: “Like it or not, we are all in this together.” q

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Envisioning an alternate future IBCC takes aim at status quo approach to water planning By Judi Buehrer

“I think the general feeling is that it is important to preserve the state’s $16 billion agricultural economy. Agricultural lands provide food, jobs, open space, wildlife habitat, and a vibrant rural economy.” —Harris Sherman


Few tasks could be more daunting than ensuring Colorado’s future water supply. Consider these projections: The state will have nearly double the residents— from 5 million in 2008 to 10 million in 2050; climate change could decrease Upper Colorado River runoff anywhere from 5 to 20 percent by 2050; and oil shale development, if heavily pursued, may gulp more water annually than the amount stored in Lake Dillon. In short, Colorado may face a critical water shortfall by 2050 and beyond. The state’s current planning process, through the Interbasin Compact Committee and nine basin roundtables, is an attempt to gather a broad spectrum of knowledgeable, vested and otherwise interested parties to address that shortfall. As the IBCC and 300-plus stakeholders put their heads together, they face the difficult challenges of balancing competing needs and assessing the tradeoffs of pursuing various water supply strategies. In early 2008, Harris Sherman, director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and the IBCC’s head of compact negotiations, posed four questions to drive careful thought and discussion about planning for Colorado’s future—considering both the “business as usual” route and alternate paths. Sherman asked the committee: (1) What will Colorado look like in 50 years if we let our current approach to water supply play out, following the status quo? (2) Is this the Colorado you would like to see? (3) If not, what would your Colorado look like? And (4) If your Colorado looks different than the status quo scenario, then how and when should we investigate water supply alternatives that would lead to the Colorado you would like to see? The questions sparked a visioning process by which the IBCC’s 27 members, with input from the basin roundtables, began developing a vision statement and related goals, while analyzing a medley of water supply strategies. This year, they will work with the roundtables to identify programs, methods, and future water projects that fit within that framework.

Competing interests complicate visioning process Initial responses to Sherman’s questions were overwhelmingly in favor of pursuing an alternative to the status-quodriven future. Alternate visions, however, were varied and hazy. The IBCC continued to digest various presentations about agricultural needs, growth, climate change, energy needs, and legislative initiatives as it sought a cohesive vision. Jay Winner, IBCC member and general manager of the Lower Arkansas Water Conservancy District, says, “The biggest concern was that the process be very inclusive. We had 12 tumultuous months that involved listening to everyone’s concerns.” The group found common ground in ensuing discussions related to some of those concerns. They agreed the state is transitioning to an era of reallocating water between competing uses, rather than solely developing new water. The related question of whether the free market will be effective in achieving that reallocation with desirable outcomes, however, was debated. The IBCC also agreed that water supply is closely tied to larger economic, demographic, and cultural trends of the state, especially agriculture. “I think the general feeling is that it is important to preserve the state’s $16 billion agricultural economy. Agricultural lands provide food, jobs, open space, wildlife habitat, and a vibrant rural economy,” says Sherman. Despite such concurrences, the IBCC stumbled on crafting a specific vision statement. Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and one of the governor’s atlarge appointees on the committee, says, “There are vastly competing interests on the IBCC concerning consumptive, agricultural, and recreational needs. I think we all agreed on many things, but we didn’t make much progress on the vision statement. There was a lot of wordsmithing rather than substantive input.” The wordsmithing involved such discrepancies as using “sustainably meets” as opposed to “balances” in the current draft vision statement: “We envision a Colorado that balances municipal, industrial, agricultural, environmental, and recreational water needs and promotes

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cooperation among all water uses.” Melinda Kassen, managing director of the Trout Unlimited Western Water Project, preferred “sustainably meets.” She says, “It puts everyone on the same footing,” including environmental and recreational stakeholders. “I think most people get that we have to protect the environment and recreation, which are important to Colorado’s economy.” Others felt “balances” more appropriately recognized that while not all of Colorado’s current water uses will conceivably be met all the time, it is important to ensure water is available in some amount for municipal, industrial, agricultural, environmental, and recreational uses to sustain Colorado’s diverse economy. Kassen, also a governor’s appointee to the IBCC, says she compromised because, “The vision statement is not as important as what happens.” She hopes the state will invest in “smart” projects that do no harm to the environment or the recreational economy. Eric Hecox, chief of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Intrastate Water Management and Development section, says last October marked a turning point. “At first, people were staking out their territory. At the October meeting, we recognized the need to move on, agreed to keep a draft vision statement, and decided to move forward on the strategies.” Major issues drive water supply discussions The IBCC will consider the state’s strategic options in the context of confronting three major issues: climate change, population growth, and oil shale development. According to the CWCB’s recent Colorado Climate Change Report, Colorado’s average temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 4 degrees over the next 50 years. That degree of warming could decrease the Upper Colorado River’s runoff by 5 to 20 percent and alter the seasons when precipitation occurs and even the form in which it falls. On the growth issue, the IBCC discussed the relationship between water demand and land use at length last December. Colorado’s population is expected to reach about 10 million by 2050; 80 percent of the 5 million new residents will reside on the Front Range. Sherman says land use decisions are important because high-density residential development significantly decreases per capita water consumption. The land use discussion raised several questions: Would incentives encourage developers to build more high-den-

sity developments voluntarily? If so, should incentives be local initiatives or statewide programs? And a half-serious question that drew nervous laughter at the meeting—will new Coloradans all be living in apartments? Oil shale development, the third major component, “could be a game changer,” says Sherman. After the first phase of the energy study conducted by the Colorado and Yampa/White/Green basin roundtables concluded oil shale development could consume up to 400,000 acre feet of water annually, people have drawn their own concerning conclusions. Oil shale could use up the balance of remaining water under the Colorado River Compact, affecting both agricultural communities on the West Slope and municipal water needs on the Front Range. Some oil industry representatives, however, disagree with the figures. (See A Numbers Game, page 11.) And, as Hecox points out, that 400,000 acre-foot figure is only one end of the spectrum. A less-aggressive industry might use one-fourth of that much water. Options include supply-side and demand-side strategies In light of these concerning variables, the IBCC will evaluate both demand-side and supply-side strategies, pressing to reduce future water demands and boost the state’s supply. Hecox and his team are analyzing three strategies—conservation, agricultural transfers and new water supply development—and presented initial findings to the IBCC in March. The conservation strategy seeks to reduce water use by 20, 30 and 40 percent from 2000 levels. The analysis is looking at which best practices, such as tiered water-rate structures, rebates for low-water-use plumbing fixtures and appliances, and turf-replacement incenH e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9

Forum for many voices—Winner represents the Arkansas Basin on the Interbasin Compact Committee. Kuhn and Kassen were appointed to the IBCC by Gov. Bill Owens. Hecox helped craft the legislation that created the IBCC and has been involved ever since.


project that will increase the city’s water supply by 20 percent when it goes on-line in 2012. But, he 400 Gallons of Water Used adds, few communities Per Person Per Day can afford to implement 350 such projects. Hecox agrees that con300 servation “makes wiser use of water supply to meet 250 more needs with a limited resource.” However, he 200 says conservation has its limits. “The magnitude of 150 the challenges posed by climate change, population 100 growth and potential energy development means we 50 will not be able to conserve our way out of this.” 0 In addition, overlyaggressive conservation measures stretch supplies to meet average water demands. If providers then Water Use and Land-Use Density Inversely Correlated use conserved water to Residents of a single-family home on a 1-acre plot use, on average, 400 sustain growth, they incregallons of water per person per day (gpcd)—most of that is used for mentally lose flexibility to watering the lawn. In contrast, low- to medium-density developments reduce water use to between 140 and 190 gpcd, respectively, and implement stricter conserhigh-density developments fall even lower, to about 90 gpcd. Current vation measures during a per capita use averages 200 gallons per day statewide. drought, a process called water hardening. Likewise, alternatives, would need to be implemented to tive agricultural transfers, which would achieve those levels of conservation. The agricultural transfers analysis will replace the status quo “buy and dry” evaluate both traditional and alternative transfers, offer benefits and disadvanagricultural transfers in the Arkansas and tages. One such alternative is rotational South Platte river basins. In both basins, fallowing, which allows farmers to sell transferable water is located down- water from part of their farm and falstream of—and will need to be pumped low that land while irrigating the rest. back to—the basins’ urban areas. “We’re Another option is an interruptible water looking at what type of infrastructure and supply contract between a farmer and treatment would be required and how a municipality that sets aside a specific amount of water for the city in the event much it would cost,” says Hecox. The third strategy, new water sup- of a drought. The third alternative is ply development, primarily concerns the water banking, which enables farmers to viability of Colorado River water storage bank a portion of their allocated water for projects and transbasin diversions. “We’ll sale or lease to another user. “California is using all three of these look at small, medium, and large water supply projects that would balance the tools,” says Sherman. “We want to needs of the Front Range and the West determine which tools and strategies are best for Colorado, and possibly Slope,” says Hecox. [support] legislation to protect the state’s agricultural economy and rural IBCC weighs tradeoffs, risks Of the various strategies, Kassen says areas so they can thrive.” On the plus side, Hecox says limited she favors “more water conservation agricultural transfers re-allocate water and reuse programs across the state. Conservation and reuse save water and from one sector of consumptive use to money while maintaining healthy rivers, another, with no new stream depletions. On the down side, agricultural transstreamflows, and fish.” Kuhn also believes conservation and fers often squeeze rural economies when reuse are the most promising strategies water is transferred out of the region. Even with conservation and limited and points to Aurora’s innovative $754 million Prairie Waters recycled water ag transfers, many believe new dams 10

High-Density Housing


Low- to MediumDensity Housing

Single-Family Home on 1-Acre Lot



and transbasin diversions will be needed to ensure a water supply for Colorado’s future. Because the only remaining unallocated water in the state is in the Colorado River system, it is an obvious source for additional supply. But as director of an organization interested in conserving the state’s Colorado River Compact entitlement, Kuhn has a problem with the state relying on the Colorado River. “The assumption is that we’re using all the available water we’re allotted in the Arkansas, Platte, and Rio Grande river compacts and the only new water to develop is in the Colorado River. The problem is, no one knows how much is there or what the impact of climate change will be,” Kuhn says. While the state awaits the conclusion of the CWCB’s Colorado River Water Availability Study, scheduled for September, conjecture reigns. Anywhere between zero and 1 million acre feet remain undeveloped in the system, depending on conflicting interpretations of the Colorado River Compact and current hydrological data on the river. (See A Numbers Game, page 11.) Another often-contentious issue related to new transbasin diversions is assuring benefits to both the recipient and the basin of origin. Even as projects are built to divert water for the Front Range, attributes could be added to provide additional municipal or agricultural water to West Slope communities. Sherman believes the state should examine building transbasin diversions using pumpback technologies. By taking water from farther downstream, pumpback projects would protect the headwaters counties, “where there is tremendous concern and conflict about diverting water to the Front Range,” he says. “Part of our charge is to bring regions together,” Sherman says. “The Front Range needs to be engaged in an active dialogue with several of the roundtables. If there is trust, dialogue, and a win-win approach, I think we will do a lot of good.” As the IBCC continues to envision an alternate future, doubts flicker along with a hopeful sense of possibility. “The IBCC is a very bold experiment,” Sherman says. “I don’t know of another state using this approach to bring regions together that have fought a lot in the past. When I inherited this job [as IBCC chair], I was somewhat of a cynic. But we have moved forward. It will take time, and it is hard to predict when we will be finished. I think we will make a lot of progress in the next two years.” q

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A Numbers Game What the Technical Work Surrounding the Interbasin Compact Process Reveals


By Eryn Gable

As Colorado heeds forecasts that its communities and industries are outgrowing water supplies, both water providers and users have come to the table to lay down their cards. In order to play their collective hands wisely, they are hard at work putting everything down on paper. Painstaking evaluations and number-crunching may prove integral to future decision-making. The Interbasin Compact Process is funding and facilitating numerous studies on both the local and statewide level in conjunction with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. At the heart of the effort lie the basin roundtables, whose mission centers on completion of comprehensive basin-wide water needs assessments, including an evaluation of both consumptive and non-consumptive needs. Consumptive uses include municipal, industrial and agricultural water diverted and consumed from rivers or tapped from the ground. Nonconsumptive needs are environmental and recreational uses that benefit when

water stays in the stream. The roundtables will also assess the availability of water supplies in their basins and propose projects or other methods for meeting water supply needs. Precursor to the Interbasin Compact Process: SWSI Driving the roundtables’ work are the findings of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, referred to as SWSI, a detailed assessment of the state’s water outlook initiated in 2003. Rick Brown of the consulting firm Camp, Dresser and McKee, or CDM, says the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which he worked for at the time, developed SWSI after observing three trends early in the decade: Colorado’s booming population, increasing demands for non-consumptive uses like recreation and environmental protection, and the 2002 drought. Brown says, “We started thinking, ‘How well are we prepared for our future in terms of water supply?’ We really didn’t have a comprehensive picture of where the state was and where it

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was going to be in 30 years.” The goal of SWSI was to provide that picture. The first phase of SWSI resulted in a November 2004 report from the CWCB and Department of Natural Resources that predicted Colorado will need an additional 630,000 acre feet of water by 2030 as its population swells from 4.3 million in 2000 to an estimated 7.1 million. SWSI I also calculated the gap between supply and demand for each basin, concluding the state was 118,000 acre feet short of meeting future demand with the identified projects and processes, or IPPs, that could supply more water. One concern Brown acknowledges is that SWSI made optimistic assumptions about water supplies, in part because some of the IPPs in the report overlap with another entity’s identified project or will simply never come to fruition. “The gap is likely to be larger,” he says. Just how much larger is still unknown. To address this concern, the CWCB is developing a database to track projects into the future; as the agency moni-


Estimates for Water Demand Hinge on Population Projections by Eryn Gable Colorado’s State Demography Office prepares population forecasts based on economic and demographic change. The economic forecast establishes the demand for labor, while demographic models indicate the supply of labor that can be provided by the existing population. The difference between the demand for labor and its supply serves as the foundation for estimates of population growth. Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, says the demographer’s estimates probably represent the best available information. “You’re going to have pluses and minuses and economic swings and so forth, but in general, [the numbers] are probably pretty close.” State demographer Elizabeth Garner says the office’s projections have historically been fairly accurate, with an error margin of about 5 percent. Garner says that’s mostly because the office does not forecast booms or busts, so its projections for such cycles tend to be less accurate. However, the office continually updates its forecasts based on the latest population estimates and economic information, which makes them reliable over the long-term. Garner indicates that it’s too early to tell what the country’s current economic situation will mean for Colorado. What happens will be determined by how steep the recession is and how quickly we climb out of it. One bright spot for now is that Colorado’s economy remains better off than a lot of other states, says Garner. Based on the office’s model, the state has extended the demographer’s projections—which only go to 2035—and predicts Colorado will have between 8.5 and 11 million residents in 2050. The state passed the 5 million mark in July 2008. q


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tors whether projects come on-line, are amended, or prove unsuccessful, it will know where assistance is needed and be able to recalculate the water supply gap. Eric Hecox, section chief of Intrastate Water Management and Development for the CWCB, says the state recognizes that not all the IPPs will pan out, but even if they did there will be a 20 percent water supply gap. “If they are successful, we have a problem. If they’re not successful, the problem is bigger,” says Hecox. Refining and filling in the data gaps Though the roundtables are using SWSI’s numbers—provided through basin-specific reports—as a baseline for their needs assessments, they are updating, refining and adding to the information as necessary. One way they are doing this is by incorporating other, existing and “appropriate sources of information” such as water quantity studies, flow agreements and biological opinions. The roundtables are also eliciting new data. The IBCC has encouraged the roundtables to use a “common technical platform” for the assessments; by using common methodologies and similar assumptions, the resulting data will be consistent and comparable. To assist the roundtables in maintaining that consistency, the state has contracted with a team of firms led by CDM to complete the technical work, which includes both studies the roundtables are directing as well as statewide evaluations for the IBCC and CWCB for which the roundtables have input. The non-consumptive needs assessments have been particularly challenging due to the extent of the data gap. Through these assessments, the roundtables are identifying the highest priority areas in their basins for protecting environmental and recreational values and attempting to quantify the levels of seasonal flows necessary to maintain those values. Site-specific quantification studies are especially time- and resource-intensive, which is one reason why the roundtables are establishing priority areas. These needs were not initially taken into account by SWSI I, a concern to some from the environmental community who were dubious from the outset of the initiative. From Dan Luecke’s perspective, the very structure of SWSI signaled that it put non-consumptive uses in a second-class position. Luecke, a consultant for Trout Unlimited and Western Resource Advocates who sat temporarily on the South Platte Basin’s

SWSI roundtable, says, “It was always an implicit assumption that meeting agricultural or municipal demands was more important. It was nice if something was left for instream flows.” He also believes consumptive uses were overestimated in every basin. “If you were going to honor these demands, there wasn’t going to be anything left for instream flows.” SWSI’s second phase worked harder to identify environmental and recreational uses. And the Interbasin Compact Process is attempting to further elevate non-consumptive uses from the second-class tier to which they’ve historically been relegated by evaluating needs for instream flows side-by-side with consumptive uses. Not everyone agrees SWSI overestimated consumptive needs either. In fact, the method used, which was based on the State Demography Office’s population projections, was specifically chosen to be conservative, says Hecox. The roundtables have commissioned various studies that will add a level of detail and address specific, localized demands they felt weren’t adequately covered by SWSI’s broader, lay-of-the-land approach. Basin roundtables’ studies The Energy Development Water Needs Assessment is a joint effort of the Colorado and Yampa/White/Green basin roundtables to assess water demand for energy needs in their basins. The first phase of the energy study, released in September 2008, found that the amount of water required for natural gas, coal, and uranium production could be met with available water supplies, but oil shale development, along with associated power production and population growth, could require up to 378,300 acre feet annually. The study developed a matrix of high-, medium- and low-production scenarios, as well as short-, mid-, and long-range timeframes. Though the near 400,000 acre-foot figure is receiving much attention, the study actually produced a range of numbers. Representatives from the joint energy subcommittee of the Colorado and Yampa roundtables say they are using a mid-range number for planning purposes, something closer to 100,000 acre feet. The second phase of the study, which will examine where water to meet energy demands could come from, is just getting started. Critical to that work will be the results of the Colorado River Water Availability Study. Greg Trainor, utility and street systems director for H e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9

STUDY IN POSSIBILITY—Shimmin represents the South Platte Basin Roundtable on the IBCC. Deheza, section chief of water conservation and drought planning for the CWCB,is working on the conservation strategy analysis for the IBCC with Rowan and Morea of CDM.


If all the 2050 demands were met through ag transfers, the state would realize a 70 percent reduction in irrigated acres on the East Slope and a 65 percent reduction on the West Slope.

FARMS FOR THE FUTURE—Danielson represents the Arkansas Basin Roundtable on the IBCC. Wilkinson was sent by the South Platte Basin Roundtable.


the city of Grand Junction, says a fullscale oil shale industry could use up the balance of water available under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Some representatives of the oil industry think the energy study drew its conclusions based on exaggerated figures for water use associated with oil shale development. Tracy Boyd, communications and sustainability manager for Shell Oil, says the study’s high-end estimate of 378,300 acre feet per year assumes production of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. Based on the three-to-one ratio Shell uses for estimating water use per barrel of oil, producing that much oil would require 212,000 acre feet per year. Shell thinks it can do even better than that. In addition, the study was based on assumptions that the large amount of energy associated with extracting oil shale would come from traditional coal-fired power plants, which Boyd says is the second-most water intensive form of energy production after nuclear. He says it’s unlikely that 30 years from now, given global warming issues and the anticipated regulatory climate for carbon dioxide emissions, the industry would rely on that form of energy. Still, the study’s conclusions have raised many an eyebrow and given the affected basins, and everyone else, reason for concern. Another roundtable waiting on a commissioned study to complete its consumptive needs assessment is the Gunnison Basin, which felt its agricultural needs were underestimated by SWSI. (See Gunnison Basin Roundtable, page 28.) In addition, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable is looking at water demand for snowmaking in the Upper Gunnison. Because of their shared hydrology, the Metro and South Platte Basin roundtables are developing a joint water needs assessment that is expected to further refine anticipated needs on the Republican River in the Eastern Plains and headwaters areas. The analysis, completed in draft form, also examines where multiple providers are eyeing the same water for a future supply, what the impact of water administration changes on the availability of water will be, and how increasingly efficient water reuse will affect downstream users. Other basin roundtables are refining their assessments based on needs unique to their basins. For example, the North Platte Basin Roundtable assessed water supplies for the town of Walden and is implementing the result-

ing recommendations; the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable has initiated a well monitoring program south of the Rio Grande River; and the Arkansas Basin Roundtable is looking at alternatives to agricultural dry-up. Statewide efforts The roundtables’ efforts are being supplemented by other studies, including the state’s work with CDM to extend SWSI’s 2030 projections out to 2050 and recalculate the gap for each basin. This study will also consider the role of climate variability and groundwater sustainability, two factors that could lead to declining water supplies. Though the study remains in draft form, initial 2050 projections estimate a statewide population of 8.5 to 11 million and an associated increase in municipal and industrial demand of 1.7 million acre feet. That figure takes into account highend population growth and the maximum figure for oil shale development. Another study, being conducted by Boyle/AECOM for the CWCB, is evaluating the possibility of maximizing Colorado’s use of Colorado River Basin water. The Colorado River Water Availability Study’s first phase should be complete by September 2009 and will determine the amount of water remaining from Colorado’s allocation under the Colorado River Compact. Estimates for how much water is unallocated and available for development in the Colorado River system are currently all over the board, says Hecox. According to the 1922 compact and the subsequent Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948, Colorado is entitled to just over half of the 7.5 million acre feet it must share with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, or approximately 3.8 million acre feet. Colorado currently uses up to 2.8 million acre feet, which means 1 million acre feet remain. However, it is widely accepted that the data used to set the numbers for the agreements came from wetter-thanaverage years. The 2007 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Hydrologic Determination stated the river’s flow is averaging at a level low enough that it would be impossible for all the compact’s parties to get what they planned on. If Colorado indeed gets a smaller share, and existing projects that are not yet operating at capacity are taken into account, the amount of water remaining may be as low as 150,000 acre feet, according to Eric Kuhn, gereral manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

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“The study’s not going to come up with a specific number, but rather a range of how much water is left that can be safely developed under the compact entitlement,” says Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and CWCB board member. “That’s going to have to be coupled with a risk analysis looking at if we develop it, what’s the risk of a compact call and what can be done to reduce that risk?” The availability piece of the needs assessments has been completed for all but the West Slope basins; each has concluded there is no new water available. Jeris Danielson, general manager for the Purgatoire River

Water Conservancy District, says the Colorado River’s availability study will have implications statewide. “The only unused water we have is in the Colorado River Basin, so until we know how much is unused, it’s very difficult to come up with ways to meet those needs.” He says transfers from irrigated agriculture are currently meeting the majority of municipal needs, and while everyone recognizes that ag transfers will be required to meet some portion of future demand, they question how many acres will be sacrificed. If all the 2050 demands were met through ag transfers, the state would realize a 70 percent reduction in irrigated acres on

the East Slope and a 65 percent reduction on the West Slope. As the state proceeds with a study evaluating additional strategies, both to reduce demands through conservation and reuse and to develop supplies through various means, some are already anticipating the hard questions. The balance between supply and demand, evidenced by the numbers coming out of the various studies, still isn’t adding up. Says Trainor, “There isn’t enough water around here, folks, and there’s going to have to be a serious examination of the state’s priorities and what kind of uses we want water going toward.” q

“The hope is that

Funding mechanisms for projects and programs by Eryn Gable Many of the projects and programs for implementing the recommendations of the roundtable’s needs assessments will be funded by individual water providers, but opportunities for funding also exist through grants and loans from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The Water Supply Reserve Account, created by SB 06-179, was authorized to provide $10 million annually—although the account received $3 million to $4 million less the past two years—through the state’s Severance Tax Trust Fund for both water supply projects and environmental projects or studies. Funding requests go through the basin roundtables, and, if approved, are forwarded to the CWCB for final decision. The CWCB also oversees the Alternative Agricultural Water Transfer Methods Grant Program, which supports alternatives to the traditional transfer of agricultural water to municipal and industrial purposes. The program currently assists projects on the Front Range, but will extend statewide and proffer an additional $1.5 million in grants if CWCB’s annual projects bill passes in its present form this legislative session. The CWCB’s Water Project Loan Program provides low-interest loans to agricultural, municipal and commercial borrowers to develop water projects in Colorado, including reservoirs, ditches, canals, pipelines, diversion structures, wells, water rights purchases and flood control projects. The CWCB can finance as much as 90 percent of the total project costs, including engineering and construction. Approximately $60 million is available each year for new loans, and loan requests over $10 million must be authorized by the Legislature. “The hope is that as roundtables identify projects to meet their needs, those that need additional funding to get off the ground will qualify for a loan or get grant funding through the Water Supply Reserve Account,” says the CWCB’s Intrastate Water Management and Development section chief Eric Hecox. Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, predicts many projects will receive a mix of financing. “I think it will be a combination of municipal, public and private partnerships,” he says. “That’s the only way you can do it in the economic environment we have today.” q

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as roundtables identify projects to meet their needs, those that need additional funding to get off the ground will qualify for a loan or get grant funding through the Water Supply Reserve Account.” —Eric Hecox

REACHING OUT—Crane, executive director for the Colorado Watershed Assembly, is also a member of the Public Education, Participation and Outreach workgroup of the IBCC.


The Basin Roundtables An inside look at their activities, priorities and concerns

For the past three and a half years, more than 300 stakeholders participating in nine basin roundtables have attempted to put aside differences and lay out the collective needs for consumptive and non-consumptive water use in each basin. As the roundtables have begun to complete their needs assessments, some are looking around and wondering where the process will lead. And they are questioning whether they will succeed in meeting competing water needs for Colorado’s future through this Interbasin Compact Process. issues vary dramatically, so the roundtables have spent a lot of time educating themselves. County commissioners and city planners, who historically have not been involved in water planning, are among those at the table. Others who haven’t previously had a direct voice in water planning include environmental and recreational interests. Steve Glazer, Gunnison’s environmental representative, values his seat at the table and thinks the Water Supply Reserve Account funds have helped motivate traditional water users to stay involved. Through the WSRA, the roundtables have funded important studies and improvements to infrastructure. Mike Preston, chair of the Southwest Basin Roundtable, says one success of his roundtable has been “the willingness to pursue solutions that accommodate varying philosophies and values.” However, some people continue to question how the challenges for meeting escalating demands in almost every basin will be addressed when the roundtables lack authority to negotiate between themselves. Caroline Bradford of the Colorado Basin Roundtable points out that it’s difficult to negotiate interbasin agreements when you aren’t the owner of the property right in question, which many roundtable members are not.

Arkansas chair Gary Barber says, “The power we have is we’re essentially a focus group. If people with that great a diverse interest can come to a consensus, that has more weight, gravity and influence than anything.” No matter the roundtable, it seems many representatives are anxious to move forward with tangible solutions to water needs. They want to see various studies completed and get to work on specific projects. That will be the focus of the coming year as the roundtables determine specific projects, methods and strategies and begin flushing them out. As the projects are identified, they will become part of the basin needs assessments. The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be available to help implement those projects. The grassroots effort has been successful, at the very least, in helping basins wrap their arms around water issues, giving people a better grasp of the challenges ahead. As Jim Siscoe from the Southwest Basin Roundtable put it, “There are a lot of very committed people on both consumptive and non-consumptive needs trying to find creative ways to deal with very difficult water issues.” The rest of Colorado should be cheering them on. — Jayla Poppleton


Taylor Hawes, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, says, “We need to be careful to manage our expectations of what success [for this process] is. Is it a huge water project in the next five years? Or is it creating a vision for how Colorado manages its water and helping communities help themselves?” As Hawes puts it, “The roundtables have come together in a moment of self-determination. They each get to plot their own course, determine where their priorities are and ask, ‘What values are we interested in protecting?’” In speaking with roundtable representatives from across the state, one sentiment was expressed almost universally: the roundtables’ biggest success has been bringing people together. From up and down river basins, people are meeting for the first time. Handshakes and introductions have led to discussions and, at times, vigorous debates, and suspicions have given way to trust as understanding grows. “I believe people do business with people rather than institutions with institutions,” says Marc Catlin of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable. The roundtables are comprised of volunteers, many of whom are on their own dime as they travel long distances to attend meetings. Levels of understanding and experience with water


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BRIDGING THE GREAT DIVIDE—The basin roundtables, organized by watersheds: North Platte Basin (p. 18), South Platte Basin (p. 20), Metro (p. 22), Arkansas Basin.(p. 23), Rio Grande Basin (p. 25), Southwest Basin (p. 26), Gunnison Basin (p. 28), Colorado Basin (p.30), Yampa/White/Green Basin (p. 32)

“The power we have is we’re essentially a focus group. If people with that great a diverse interest can come to a consensus, that has more weight, gravity and influence than anything.” —Gary Barber

Mount Crested Butte is in the Gunnison Basin’s Crested Butte ski resort, where consumptive water needs related to snow-making are being evaluated.

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The basin roundtable profiles have been shortened from the original. To access the complete stories, please visit www.cfwe.org.

North Platte Basin By Jayla Poppleton


“Our community was a resource-

rom the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, the North Platte River flows down the Medicine Bow Mountains, through the meadows of North Park and to the Wyoming border, where it exits Colorado through Northgate Canyon. The elevation in the North Park valley never drops below 8,000 feet. At that altitude, the growing season is a mere 60 days, and the agricultural sector consists of growing high-meadow hay and cattle ranching. The largest town in the basin is Walden, with a population of just over 700 people. Like other high-altitude forests in Colorado, the North Platte’s forests are under attack by the mountain pine beetle. Concerned about the possibility of catastrophic fire damaging the watershed and ultimately, the water supply, the North Platte Basin Roundtable approved a Water Supply Reserve

Account grant for a study on the “Effects of Mountain Pine Beetle and Forest Management on Water Quantity, Quality and Forest Recovery.” “We want to assess the changing forest composition and what is going to happen in our basin for water yields as lodgepole is killed and younger, successional stages of regrowth come in,” explains the roundtable’s chair, Kent Crowder, who is Jackson County’s manager. Carl Trick, an Interbasin Compact Committee representative and Colorado Water Conservation Board member for the North Platte, adds, “Snowmelt is going to be coming off earlier, and without the ability to store it and retime it, it’s going to be an issue.” The roundtable is supportive of businesses setting up to use beetle-kill timber as a resource. As the only basin concerned with its lack of growth, Crowder says they could stand to see a few new industries. Trick says there is also potential for significant oil and gas development based on recent finds. “If those industries do move into the basin, our needs will go up,” he says. The Statewide Water Supply Initiative forecast municipal and industrial demand increasing by a mere 100 acre feet in the basin by 2030. Though small compared to statewide water needs, addressing this shortfall is one of the roundtable’s priorities. The roundta-

based economy… But we see tourism and recreation as a diversification of our economy.”

Tonya Orr

—Kent Crowder

A RANCHER’S LIFE—Cattle graze on the Grizzly Creek Ranch in Walden, where the agricultural sector relies on the South Platte Basin as a market for its goods.


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Eric Wunow

HEADWATERS—The North Platte River begins in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, which is one of the nation’s oldest wilderness areas and spans 36 miles of the Continental Divide.

ble requested an in-depth water supply evaluation by the CWCB for the town of Walden, and based on the results, the group approved a $385,000 WSRA grant to help Walden improve the reliability of its water supply. The basin’s overall water supply is largely governed by a decree that limits how much Colorado can use, as opposed to a compact that says how much it must deliver downstream to Wyoming and Nebraska. In addition, they are tied to the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program—or three-state agreement between Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska—which seeks to recover endangered species on the Platte River in central Nebraska. By participating in the agreement, the North Platte Basin water users preserve their ongoing use of the river while the species recover. As the basin continues to negotiate numbers related to the three-state agreement and its consumptive needs, the roundtable is seeking better data on agricultural water use. A WSRA grant approved last September funds a study by the Colorado Climate Center on evapotranspiration rates in North Park’s hay meadows. “High altitude crop coefficients vary a lot with altitude and weather,” explains Trick. “The state has used some coefficients we don’t necessarily agree

with.” If the coefficients are too high, the basin’s water consumption may be overestimated; if the coefficients are too low, the basin’s consumption is likely underestimated. Another issue presenting a challenge or, as Crowder puts it, an opportunity to solve a problem, is finding the balance between consumptive and non-consumptive needs. “Our community was a resource-based economy—ranching, mining, timber, oil and gas—for a long time. But we see tourism and recreation as a diversification of our economy,” says Crowder. The basin supports both high-quality fishing and, according to Ducks Unlimited, the second-best duck hatchery in the state. In seeking the balance, Trick reminds people that many of the environmental attributes they value wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the development of the ag community. “Historically, many of the streams essentially dried up. Irrigated agriculture has created a huge alluvial aquifer that slowly seeps back to support the trout fisheries and waterfowl that we have.” Through this process, the roundtable is also vested in the success and prosperity of other basins. Much of the hay and cattle grown in North Park finds its way to market in the neighboring South Platte Basin. Says Trick, “We’re all interconnected.” q

“Snowmelt is going to be coming off earlier, and without the ability to store it and retime it, it’s going to be an issue.” —Carl Trick

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South Platte Basin By Eryn Gable


sued to maximize efficiency, but may result in diminished return flows. In addition, the study surveyed for any remaining unappropriated water, finding none. Many roundtable members are anxious to keep the process moving. Mike Applegate, roundtable member and president of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, says, “We need to stop talking and start doing. How far we refine the numbers isn’t going to make that much difference.” But identifying future water supplies for the South Platte is a challenge. There’s increasing competition from the Denver metro area, along with resistance from the West Slope against transbasin diversions. Roundtable members want to avoid large-scale dry-up of irrigated agriculture, a distinct possibility as municipalities increasingly look to purchase agricultural water rights. If the basin were to meet all of its 2030 municipal needs using ag water, it could put 133,000 to 228,000 acres out of production. The roundtable is investigating alternatives: If cities lease agricultural water rights rather than buy them outright, farms could continue operating. The high cost of the infrastructure

required to move ag water to cities could hinder this strategy. Importing more water is another alternative. In 2007, the roundtable met with delegates from the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable to discuss the Yampa Pumpback, a $4 billion project studied by the NCWCD that could provide 300,000 acre feet of water to the Front Range. Jim Yahn, the roundtable’s chair and secretary-manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District, says the roundtable is interested in the pumpback but won’t pursue it directly, partially due to skepticism about whether the project will ever come to fruition. Yahn notes that other less controversial projects like the Northern Integrated Supply Project have faced resistance, which doesn’t bode well for the pumpback. The lack of available water also means conservation will have to play a critical role in reducing future demands, says Eric Wilkinson, NCWCD general man-

Emmett Jordan

he South Platte Basin, which covers an area of about 22,000 square miles in northeastern Colorado, is a diverse region including mountain towns near the headwaters, large cities like Boulder and Fort Collins along the Front Range, and agricultural communities in the Eastern Plains including the Republican River Basin. The basin supports both the largest number of irrigated acres—more than 1 million—of any basin statewide and the largest population when the Denver metro area, which lies in the basin but was delegated to the distinct Metro Roundtable, is included. By 2030, the South Platte Basin including the metro area is expected to have a 90,600 acre-foot shortfall between supply and demand, the largest in the state. Finding a way to close the gap is a top priority for the South Platte Basin Roundtable’s 51 members. In order to complete its consumptive needs assessment and determine precisely how big its water supply gap is, the roundtable is completing a joint study with the Metro Roundtable. Still in draft form, the analysis evaluated areas where water providers are competing for the same water and examined the impact of municipalities reusing their wholly consumable effluent. Reuse is increasingly being pur-

A BRAIDED STREAM—The South Platte River, pictured near Kersey, is heavily diverted to support more than 1 million acres of irrigated agriculture.


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Emmett Jordan

CORN HARVEST—Gross agricultural sales in Weld County average higher than in any other county in Colorado.

ager, Colorado Water Conservation Board member and one of the roundtable’s IBCC representatives. At the same time, he stresses that conservation without the infrastructure to manage conserved water isn’t as effective. Permitting and constructing new water storage projects is seen as a critical piece to addressing the basin’s water supply gap. The roundtable approved a $176,000 Water Supply Reserve Account grant to study Ovid Reservoir, which would be a 5,700 acre-foot off-channel reservoir near the Nebraska state line that could augment well depletions and prevent a compact call. Well users would benefit from the project: Many of their wells were shut down in 2006 after senior water rights owners complained the wells were lowering the water table and reducing streamflows. The roundtable has earmarked its WSRA funds for projects that accomplish more than one purpose. Tom Iseman, water program manager for The Nature Conservancy who sits on the roundtable, says, “We’ve done a lot of projects that include environmental benefits as well.” According to Iseman, the joint South Platte/Metro roundtables’ non-consumptive needs subcommittee presented its draft map of the basin’s environmental and recreational attributes to the roundtable in February. Once the roundtable approves the map, it will decide which areas are most important to protect given the concentration of attributes. Iseman says some roundtable members were concerned that by mapping valuable reaches, the areas would be protected indefinitely, but he

emphasizes the map is a tool they can use to make better decisions but carries no legal significance. The Nature Conservancy is currently engaged in a shared vision planning process with the cities of Greeley and Ft. Collins for their Halligan-Seaman project. The project, which would enlarge the two reservoirs—Halligan and Milton Seaman on the North Fork of the Poudre River— would supply approximately 35,000 acre feet. But the expansion could affect the Nature Conservancy’s Phantom Canyon Preserve, which includes a largely undisturbed riparian forest. Greeley initiated the shared visioning process, and the roundtable doled out WSRA funds to support it. The cooperating parties are attempting to integrate environmental flows with the operations of the project on the front end. “It’s a great model for the kind of things the roundtable should be funding,” says Iseman. “It’s where we want to go in the future.” As the future approaches, Applegate says the easiest option for water providers continues to be buying up agricultural lands and drying them up. The question, says Applegate, is whether eliminating agriculture to provide water for growing cities is in the best interest of the basin. “Are we going to turn one part of the state into a sacrificial zone for the benefit of another part of the state, or can we figure out a way to get through this morass and come up with something that will leave agriculture relatively intact and provide the metro areas with a reliable water supply? That, in my mind, is the biggest issue out there in the South Platte Basin.” q

“We need to stop talking and start doing. How far we refine the numbers isn’t going to make that much difference.” —Mike Applegate

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THE MILE HIGH CITY—From Denver’s City Park, visitors sight the city skyline across Ferril Lake, which functions not only as an enjoyable centerpiece but for detaining stormwater and irrigating the entire park.

Metro By Jayla Poppleton


he Metro Roundtable was carved from the South Platte Basin because of its unique demographic and water uses. Anchored by the Mile High City, the roundtable includes Golden to the west, Parker to the south, Aurora to the east and Thornton to the north, as well as many others in-between. In short, the roundtable’s major challenge is having all of the people and none of the water, says Colorado Water Conservation Board member Barbara Biggs, who is also government affairs officer of the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District. Even as they have made great strides in water conservation and efficiency, the roundtable’s members expect they will need more imported water to make ends

“My enthusiasm for the pumpback projects is tempered by the number of unanswered questions about the Colorado River Compact.” —Chips Barry 22

meet. With a 62,500 acre-foot gap, as projected by the Statewide Water Supply Initiative for 2030, staring them down, they are getting antsy. “The mood is that we need to move forward,” says the roundtable’s chair and Interbasin Compact Committee representative, Rod Kuharich, putting it mildly. The group adopted SWSI’s figures for its consumptive needs report. But then it went on to assess the degree of overlap between identified projects that were used for SWSI’s calculation of projected available supply. This work was initiated together with the South Platte Basin Roundtable, which is concerned about the Metro region looking increasingly at purchasing agricultural water rights from the South Platte. The Metro Roundtable has little agricultural water within its own borders, and with resistance to transbasin diversions, will certainly look to take

advantage of some of the ag water for sale. Some members of the Metro Roundtable want to further study various pumpback projects from the West Slope. But Chips Barry, manager of Denver Water and one of the roundtable’s IBCC representatives, urges caution. “My enthusiasm for the pumpback projects is tempered by the number of unanswered questions about the Colorado River Compact,” he explains. “The difficulty with those projects is they may utilize so much of Colorado’s remaining water, it would put existing water rights at risk.” Still, Barry is engaged in a dialogue with the Colorado River Water Conservation District and four West Slope counties—Summit, Grand, Eagle and Mesa—to settle 50 years worth of disputed issues. Though Denver Water is not officially representing other entities for these negotiations, Barry says part of the equation is making provisions for additional water supplies for other Front Range customers. The roundtable has also sent delegates to a joint subcommittee for evaluating non-consumptive needs with the South Platte Basin Roundtable. However, there are limited non-consumptive needs in the Metro region itself. One thing it did consider is that the stretch of the South Platte River running through Denver realizes some ecological and recreational benefits from the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation, a project supported by the Greenway Foundation. The reallocation, which was partially funded through the roundtable’s Water Supply Reserve Account, will transfer some of Chatfield’s capacity to municipal

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storage purposes. The 300,000 acre-foot reservoir was originally built for flood protection. Denver Water already has 27,000 acre feet, and 15 other providers will share the new 20,600 acre-foot pool. As part of the project, the group will cooperate to time releases for ecological benefits downstream, says Biggs. Another project supported by WSRA funds is an evaluation of aquifer supply in the Denver Basin for the South Metro Water Supply Authority. The study’s first phase is evaluating aquifer supplies, the effect of drawdowns on well productivity, and potential sites for an aquifer storage and recovery pilot study. The second phase, for the pilot itself, was approved for more than $1 million by the roundtable in December 2008 but awaits the CWCB’s final approval. Aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR, holds promise as an effective means of storing water underground, eliminating evaporative losses and prolonging an aquifer’s life. The south metro area is especially in need of renewable water supplies to supplement its use of Denver Basin aquifers. Although the ASR study is a positive step, the SMWSA’s executive director Rod Kuharich is anxious to move forward with studying what he calls the “strategic initiatives.” Essentially, those initiatives are pumpback projects, such as the Yampa Pumpback or the idea to bring water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in Utah. (See Yampa Roundtable, page 30.) “A year ago, the Metro, Arkansas and South Platte roundtables met and came to a near unanimous decision to move forward with studying these projects,” says Kuharich. In the meantime, water providers are getting their hands wet one way or another, defaulting to drying up ag in short-term projects. They are also taking a hard second, third and fourth look at ways to drive conservation farther and maximize reuse. Historically, consumable return flows haven’t been fully used, and entities including Denver Water, Aurora and the SMWSA are cooperating to take advantage of that water. Though some urge patience with the grassroots process, saying nothing in water moves fast, Kuharich fears if they don’t proceed with negotiations related to some of the long-term projects, “the process is going to be perceived as the ‘emperor with his new clothes.’” q

Arkansas Basin By Jayla Poppleton


he Arkansas River flows from 14,000-foot peaks near Leadville to the plains along the Kansas border before leaving the state to continue its lengthy trip to the Mississippi. Its watershed is the largest in Colorado, covering more than one fourth of the state. The vast basin also has a broad roundtable membership of 53, which “The General makes it a little unwieldy says its chair, Assembly told us to Gary Barber, who is El Paso County’s water manager. Unwieldy though it propose projects and may be, the Arkansas is setting the pace for the other roundtables. methods, and we’re “The General Assembly told us to propose projects and methods,” going to turn in our Barber likes to say. “And we’re going homework.” to turn in our homework.” —Gary Barber The basin finished its consumptive needs assessment after updating the numbers from its Statewide Water Supply Initiative report. It realized an additional 10,000 acre feet in future demand, bringing its gap between projected supply and demand to 31,700 acre feet. Two thirds of that is in El Paso County, and much is attributable to the depletion of groundwater. With about 400,000 acres of irrigated farmland extending east from Pueblo to the Kansas border, the Arkansas Valley’s agricultural water is a convenient source. Conveyance is less an issue than in some regions. Though roundtable members anticipate traditional agricultural water transfers to account for some portion of new urban water, they are pursuing alternatives to help farmers stay on the farm. Instead of traditional buy and dry, ditch companies and their shareholders can pool water and arrange temporary lease agreements while fallowing some of their land. The roundtable approved a Water Supply Reserve Account grant to help the Super Ditch, a limited liability corporation that employs this concept, move forward. The Super Ditch has yet to jump many hurdles, however, and some municipalities are hesitant to rely on water they don’t own outright. In order to further protect rural communities, the roundtable completed a water transfers guidelines report, which could serve as a model for accommodating transfers while minimizing the damage to rural economies and third parties. “The report doesn’t advocate transfers,” says the subcommittee’s chair, Lawrence Sena, who is mayor of Las Animas. “It just set up guidelines to follow in the event they are going to happen.” Not all the basin’s economies are agriculturally-based. Recreation is the biggest economic driver in Chaffee County, home of Buena Vista and Salida. The Arkansas is the most rafted river in the world, and a voluntary flow agreement between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado State Parks and various water providers ensures the river is boatable all summer. H e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9



PURE PLEASURE—Paddlers enjoy classic Colorado whitewater on the Arkansas, the most rafted river in the world.

“Because we understand how transbasin diversions can impact the county of origin, we have empathy as we work with those on the Colorado River.” —Alan Hamel


Most of the water for the flow agreement, hailed as an example of collaborative success, comes from the Frying Pan-Arkansas project, which diverts water from the Colorado River Basin to the Arkansas. Reed Dils, a Colorado Water Conservation Board member who retired from the rafting business, was involved in the basin’s non-consumptive needs assessment, along with long-time conservationist SeEtta Moss. In order to map its priority reaches and watersheds, the basin developed a model using HUCs, or Hydrologic Unit Codes, to identify attributes such as wetlands and important areas for endangered species, rafting or fishing. They layered the mapped attributes over one another to determine the areas with the highest concentration of values. The next step will be quantifying the flows needed to protect those values. The roundtable may have an advantage. One of the Arkansas’ major tributaries, Fountain Creek, was chosen as a pilot for an experimental quantification tool developed by researchers at Colorado State University. The tool’s watershed approach examines water needs on a gross level to determine if areas are healthy or not, says Moss, the roundtable’s vice-chair and environmental representative. “From there, you have a notion of where to invest your money for site-specific quantification, which is very costly and time-consuming,” says Moss.

As the roundtable continues identifying solutions to address its water supply needs, several other factors will be considered. One is the compact with Kansas, which has been a drain on the valley since 1985 when Kansas filed a lawsuit claiming it wasn’t getting its share of compact-allocated water. Another issue will be water quality. “East of Pueblo Reservoir, a lot of factors contribute to the deterioration of water quality: storm runoff, agriculture and return flows, and the geology—the shales in the sand that water passes through,” says Alan Hamel, executive director of the Pueblo Board of Water Works and the roundtable’s former chair. The roundtable will focus on meeting future needs from its own basin. Some of its motivation stems from the basin’s unique dual role as an importing and exporting basin. “Because we understand how transbasin diversions can impact the county of origin, we have empathy as we work with those on the Colorado River,” explains Hamel. At the same time, the Arkansas has benefited mightily from imported water. Based on its degree of dependence on Colorado River water, the basin is vested in the outcome of the Colorado River Water Availability Study and the avoidance of over-appropriation or curtailment under the Colorado River Compact. “It’s important to us to be in that dialogue,” says Barber. q

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Rio Grande Basin By Laurie J. Schmidt


he Rio Grande River stretches about 1,900 miles from Colorado to Mexico. Virtually all of the water in the river’s short, 175-mile run from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains to the New Mexico border is put to agricultural use in the basin’s San Luis Valley, with a small amount used for domestic supplies. Like most of Colorado’s rivers, the Rio Grande is governed by an interstate compact. In this case, the Rio Grande Compact dictates that one-third of the river’s runoff must go downstream to New Mexico and Texas. To complicate matters, water legally permitted to stay in the basin is over-appropriated. To meet their compact obligations, the valley’s irrigators often have their water rights curtailed. The basin is also wrestling another hefty gorilla—depletion of its aquifer system. Achieving sustainable use of its aquifers is the roundtable’s top priority. The valley’s 6,000 wells have the potential to disrupt the balance of groundwater discharge and recharge, which is exactly what happened in 2002. “After the 2002 drought, farm pumping devastated the shallow aquifer because there was heavy pumping with little recharge for three years in a row,” says Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and representative to the Interbasin Compact Committee. “In this valley, 6,000 irrigation wells are too many, and we will probably not be able to sustain the aquifer system over the long haul with that kind of draft.” With support from the roundtable, the RGWCD is implementing groundwater subdistricts, which will levy assessments and fees on irrigated acres and pumping. The resulting revenue will be used to offer incentives to farmers who cease pumping and temporarily retire their water rights. Vandiver says the long-term goal is to permanently retire 25,000 acres of irrigated farm ground. To allow the aquifer to recover to its pre-drought levels, however, will require a more radical approach in the short term—an estimated 40,000 acres must be taken out of production.   The potential effects of climate change are also casting a shadow on

the region. Researchers say the San Luis Valley could get less snow in the future, and according to the roundtable’s chair Mike Gibson, peak runoff in the spring is already occurring two to three weeks earlier than it has historically. “We don’t have many reservoirs in the basin. Our reservoir is essentially the snowpack,” says Gibson, who is also manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “So if we have less snow, we have less water in storage, and that will change the river flow, the irrigation season, and how water is delivered downstream.” The basin’s four reservoirs are privately owned, and Gibson says they have all suffered from lack of maintenance. The roundtable funded three projects through the Water Supply Reserve Account to remedy some of these issues. Through improvements to surface water storage, the roundtable seeks to further reduce its reliance on groundwater. The roundtable is planning a big push to complete its needs assessments in 2009. On the non-consumptive side, Gibson says the attributes have been identified and mapped, and they are now in the process of quantifying the needs. “We truly do not have a lot of [additional] consumptive needs, other than a bigger water supply, but we have come up with a number of environmental needs for the basin,” he says. The basin’s most valued environmental resource is its wet meadows areas. The Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges provide significant bird habitat and are used by sandhill cranes during migration.   Through the WSRA, the roundtable has approved two projects benefiting nonconsumptive uses: $1.5 million in matching funds to acquire conservation easements through the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, and $285,000 to match an Environmental Protection Agency nonpoint source pollution grant. The latter, called the Rio Grande Headwaters H e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9

“In this valley, 6,000 irrigation wells are too many, and we will probably not be able to sustain the aquifer system over the long haul with that kind of draft.” —Steve Vandiver


Emmett Jordan

DISAPPEARING ACT—At the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Medaño Creek’s seasonal flows drain to an aquifer that eventually reaches the Rio Grande.

Restoration Project, will improve wildlife habitat and fisheries and reduce sediment loading in the Rio Grande. Gibson says both projects will assist the basin in meeting its compact obligations and achieving aquifer sustainability. One thing the Rio Grande Basin has going for it is that it has been somewhat shielded from the “water grabs” by large municipalities that have affected other

basins. “At the moment, we are relatively insulated because of our geographic location and the cost of installing pipelines from the valley into urban centers,” says Gibson. “But it’s something we talk about, and we recognize that circumstances could cause that to happen in the future.”   For a basin so isolated, solutions to water issues must all consider the region’s fragile economy. A loss of agri-

Southwest Basin By Jayla Poppleton


rom a 10,000 square-mile area comprised of three major river basins—the San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel—the Southwest Basin Roundtable brings together a diverse group. The roundtable joins not only those major river basins, but also seven or eight subbasins whose rivers leave the state in different directions. The Dolores and San Miguel flow west to Utah. The San Juan, Mancos, Piedra, Los Pinos, Animas and La Plata flow south to New Mexico. The sub-basins are woven together by numerous transbasin diver-


culture can trigger a domino effect when infrastructure that supports the agriculture, such as equipment and supply retailers, is also forced to leave the area. “If you come in and start dissecting the water out of here it’s the farm economy that suffers, and that’s all we have,” says Vandiver. “Once the fabric of the agricultural community starts coming unraveled, there’s nothing left here.” q

sions that supplement the region’s biggest water uses, which are agricultural—mostly ranching and hay farming with some recent diversification to organic vegetable farms. Though geographically removed from the rest of the state, the region is attracting retirees and second-home owners as well as rafters, fishermen and other outdoorsy types. Many of the southwest’s rivers are rafted, including a substantial industry on the Dolores, Animas, Piedra and San Miguel rivers. The shifting influence of recreation and tourism on the historically agriculturally-predominant economy is one of the bigger challenges facing the basin; the jump in municipal demand is another. Water is available in most of the Southwest’s basins and sub-basins, though sufficient infrastructure to deliver it to increasingly municipal users is not. Many of the applications the roundtable has received for Water Supply Reserve Account funds are for projects to address that void. Pagosa Springs, at the foot of Wolf Creek Pass, is the only incorporated town in Archuleta County. Between 1990 and 2000, Pagosa nearly doubled in size from roughly 5,000 to 10,000 people. To assist the town in accommodating its growing population, the roundtable approved two $1 million WSRA grants— one for development of additional water storage in Pagosa and another for the formation of a new water district for La Plata and

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Archuleta Counties that will work to fund, source and deliver water for domestic uses, says Mike Preston, the roundtable’s chair and general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District. The roundtable also recommended approval of $1 million from the state’s WSRA account to construct an outlet works from the Animas-La Plata Project’s Ridges Basin Reservoir. The Animas La-Plata, which has been in the works since the 1960s, was downsized twice. “What was built is the ultra-mini version,” says John Porter, president of the Southwestern Water Conservation District and representative to the Interbasin Compact Committee. Agricultural water from the project was dropped, including water for the La Plata River Basin, which desperately needs it. The project’s outlet works, pumping structure, and distribution system to get the water to the La Plata Basin could cost as much as $96 million, says Porter. The roundtable would like to see additional projects to benefit agriculture and non-consumptive uses. Jim Siscoe, manager of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company and tech-advisor to the roundtable’s non-consumptive needs subcommittee, believes protecting native fish throughout the region and providing water for the rafting industry will be the two biggest demands for maintaining adequate instream flows. Siscoe says quantifying the data is the most pressing issue. The data gap is tremendous. “There is no substantial preliminary work done on quantification. You don’t have a formula to know off the top of your head what you need to sustain a certain fish population,” explains Chuck Wanner, the roundtable’s environmental representative, formerly with the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance. Siscoe is working to bring the sepa-

rate data sets for consumptive and nonconsumptive needs together. Preston says the roundtable will work to align projects that have benefits for both. The Southwest roundtable has also been in dialogue with the other West Slope roundtables, who they’ve met with annually, about issues that may affect them all—like the Colorado River Compact. All of the basins’ rivers are part of the Upper Colorado River system and governed by that compact. The San Juan River’s management is already complicated by the compact. The river serves New Mexico as the sole source of its apportionment under the agreement. The region’s distance from the Front Range makes diversions across the divide unlikely, but the roundtable says New Mexico is its transbasin diverter. “We’re constantly trying to protect our ability to use the water so New Mexico doesn’t tie it all up,” says Steve Harris, engineering consultant and IBCC representative for the roundtable. In addition, the San Juan River must be managed to provide for endangered fish under the San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program. “It’s always an issue of how much water is left for the fish versus for Colorado and New Mexico to develop for their own uses,” says Harris. “Our uses are pretty small, but we want to make sure the opportunity is there for those uses to develop their water in the future.” As for staying on top of other issues that could affect them down the road, Preston says being tied to the larger IBCC effort gives them a way to understand what they should be looking at and how larger trends affecting basins statewide could impact them. “There’s plenty to chew on,” he says. q

“What was built [Animas-La Plata Project] is the ultra-mini version.” —John Porter

“We’re constantly trying to protect our ability to use the water so New Mexico doesn’t tie it all up.”

Michael Lewis

—Steve Harris WAITING FOR WATER—Contouring proceeds at the Animas-La Plata Project’s Ridges Basin Reservoir.

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Gunnison Basin By Jayla Poppleton


“Just because there’s a reservoir there doesn’t mean there’s all this water…We use it well, we use it often and we use it all.”

inferred that agricultural needs were being met, when in fact, multiple areas within the basin experience ag water shortages every year. “SWSI looked at diversion records. It just tells you what was used, not what was needed,” explains McClow. Preliminary work on the Colorado River Water Availability Study suggests the Gunnison’s ag water shortages may exceed 100,000 acre feet. In order to document the shortage, the roundtable voted in September 2008 to fund an ag shortages study through the Water Supply Reserve Account. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, of which Marc Catlin is manager, provides water for 80,000 acres. Every year, they end up rationing each farmer, making it challenging to finish crops. Catlin, who is also a representative to the Interbasin Compact Committee, says the association uses the water up to five times before it goes back in the river, so the effect of a shortage is compounded. Farther upriver, the North Fork of the Gunnison faces similar challenges. Most of the water there is used for growing hay and watering orchards. But the orchards are struggling, and farms are dwindling in size. Dixie Luke, who raises hay and cattle and serves as an at-large representative to the roundtable, says more storage would help, but if projects come before the

Emmett Jordan

—John McClow

he Gunnison River joins the Colorado River at Grand Junction, nearly matching it in volume. During its 180-mile descent, it drops most sharply through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is the first to have met with all eight other roundtables. Concerned that other basins have eyed the large pool of water at Blue Mesa Reservoir as a source for transbasin diversions or augmentation water, the roundtable showed pictures of the reservoir—the state’s largest—during the 2002 drought. The 940,000 acrefoot reservoir looked more like a thin ribbon of water. “Just because there’s a reservoir there doesn’t mean there’s all this water,” says John McClow, roundtable member and Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District general counsel. “Our message is: We use it well, we use it often and we use it all.” According to its chair, Michelle Pierce, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable in particular believes there were holes in the Statewide Water Supply Initiative’s gap analysis for its basin. The roundtable is seeking additional information on rural domestic supplies as well as water for snowmaking to complete its consumptive needs study. The roundtable also believes SWSI

BLUE MESA RESERVOIR—Colorado’s largest reservoir is surrounded by the Curecanti National Recreation Area, which brings 1 million visitor days and $35 million to the area each year.


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Eric Wunrow

THE GUTTED EARTH—The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park contains 12 of the canyon’s 48 miles, including the steepest, most dramatic sections.

roundtable for WSRA money, the roundtable’s screening committee has agreed they’ll have to benefit multiple uses. The non-consumptive needs assessment is proving to be one of the roundtable’s biggest challenges. “Not everyone’s on the same page. Some don’t even think we should be looking at these uses, others are very passionate about them,” explains Pierce, who is also town manager of Lake City. Steve Glazer, the roundtable’s environmental representative and High Country Citizens Alliance water program director, says a working draft of mapped attributes is complete, and he hopes the roundtable will approve it soon. The biggest controversy is over recreational attributes through private land. “People don’t want a map published that identifies their ranch as a great place to raft,” says Catlin. The roundtable has been closely monitoring two federal cases that arose from non-consumptive uses in the river. Both involve managing the three Aspinall Unit reservoirs, including Blue Mesa, upstream of the Black Canyon to manufacture a spring flood event.

Over several decades, the U.S. government has attempted to quantify a federal water right it reserved in 1933 when it preserved part of the Black Canyon as a national monument. The National Park Service wants to use the water right to replicate the river’s natural hydrograph through the canyon. The NPS reached a settlement on Dec. 22, 2008, appeasing around 400 Gunnison irrigators and other interests by agreeing to subordinate the federal water right to all rights senior to 1957, the year of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Aspinall Unit rights. At the same time, the USBR is developing a plan to re-operate the Aspinall Unit to benefit two endangered fish species in the lower Gunnison. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Gunnison’s flows are currently inadequate. As much as the roundtable wants these two things to proceed as agreed, success may hinge on water quality. The re-operation would reduce flows following the spring peak, causing selenium concentrations to rise. The FWS believes selenium is already thwarting the fish’s reproductive success. H e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association is the biggest water user affected. The valley rests on the Mancos shale deposits of an ancient ocean, heavily laden with salt and selenium. The association began piping irrigation laterals to keep water off the ground in 1997 and has succeeded in reducing selenium from its return flows—but not fast enough for the FWS. The roundtable is also concerned about a recent letter from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources initiating dialogue with the USBR to contract 200,000 acre feet of Blue Mesa Reservoir water. The letter leaves the Gunnison Basin Roundtable surmising the water would largely provide—either directly or indirectly—for municipal demands on the Front Range. The roundtable is concerned because the water right, which USBR owns from 1957, could trump other in-basin rights in the event of a compact curtailment. As Blue Mesa’s negotiations proceed in the background, the roundtable is most focused on getting the right numbers into the studies, says Catlin. q 29

Colorado Basin By Jayla Poppleton


ers are a coveted resource. The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s study of Colorado River Water Availability should provide better numbers on what the basin has left to divvy up. “We know we’re getting close,” says Jim Pokrandt, the roundtable’s chair and communications and education director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “How we use this last increment is critical.” Local interests want to do a good job of estimating future in-basin water demand so they don’t forfeit more than they can afford. “The Colorado basin, more than any other basin, is being asked to say how much we need for forever,” explains engineering consultant Dave Merritt, the roundtable’s former chair. Thus the roundtable is developing a

Kevin Moloney

he mainstem of the Colorado River flows from its headwaters in Summit and Grand Counties down through the Grand Valley and across the Utah state line. The Colorado Basin Roundtable’s concerns include protecting water in the 9,830 squaremile watershed for in-basin supplies, preserving environmental and recreational values, and providing for a growing population and development in the energy sector while sustaining agriculture as a viable industry. The monkey wrench, or rather, wrenches, are the unknown variables yet to be determined. First, how much water is left to develop from the Colorado River Basin, which includes all the West Slope watersheds? As the only remaining source of unappropriated water in the state, the basin’s riv-

meticulous consumptive needs assessment, the most crucial piece being its $300,000 energy study. The study was commissioned jointly with the Yampa/ White/Green Basin Roundtable, which is also concerned about projected water use for energy production. The ominous shadow hovering above both basins is the huge level of water demand for oil shale if the lurking resource is developed. According to the study’s first phase, aggregate demand associated with extraction of uranium, coal, natural gas and oil shale could be anywhere between 70,000 and 400,000 acre feet in 2050. Oil shale would be, by far, the dominant end user. Speculative as oil shale may be, the roundtable feels it can’t ignore the possibility. Oil companies already own significant conditional water rights on the Colorado with priority dates dotting the last century. If they make those rights absolute by putting the water to its intended use, they will have legitimate claims to rights that are senior to municipal and agricultural users currently operating in the river system, says Pokrandt. Those users could get bumped to more junior positions. The Grand Valley is the basin’s agricultural hub. Home to the basin’s largest city, Grand Junction, the valley also nurtures between 50,000 and 60,000 acres of orchards, vineyards, hay farms and row crops. Not only do the farms make the

COLORADO’S WINE COUNTRY—One of Palisade’s many vineyards keeps company with the Book Cliffs.


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“There is quite a bit of buy-in from the roundtable that preserving water for Kevin Moloney

ag is an important goal, though it may be a different level of priority for people.” —Carlyle Currier

“We think the tradeoff is how much we can protect the ag interests at the expense of recreation and the environment.” —Caroline Bradford

PEACH HARVEST—Wayne Aspinall, for which the Gunnison’s Aspinall Unit was named, was sometimes called the Palisade Peach after his hometown, where the peaches are plentiful.

valley beautiful and provide Coloradans with local food, but as Carlyle Currier, who represents the Collbran Water Conservancy District on the roundtable, points out, agricultural land provides other benefits like wildlife habitat or open space. “There is quite a bit of buy-in from the roundtable that preserving water for ag is an important goal, though it may be a different level of priority for people,” says Currier. For people in the upper basin the focus is more on recreational or environmental demands. “We think the tradeoff is how much we can protect the ag interests at the expense of recreation and the environment,” says Caroline Bradford, who represents Eagle County on the roundtable. Water to sustain growth has to come from somewhere, and the rivers in the headwaters region are already heavily diverted across the divide: as much as 600,000 acre feet is transported to the Front Range annually. Bradford is keen on seeing the nonconsumptive needs assessment completed so members will have the science to inform their decisions. “If we do a good job on this study, we’ll have a better basis to understand how we can protect the rivers and service a growing population. Or whether we can’t. Where’s the

balance?” Bradford wonders. Bradford worked on the 10,825 study funded by Water Supply Reserve Account funds. Properly called the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Alternatives Analysis, it assessed options for water providers to fulfill an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The stretch of Colorado River between Palisade and the confluence with the Gunnison River, known as the 15-mile reach, is historic habitat for four endangered fish species. Water providers must get 10,825 acre feet to the Grand Junction area for the fish in late summer in order to preserve their ongoing use of the river. The South Platte and Metro roundtables also participated in the study in order to protect their use of Colorado River water. In a region that boasts many of the state’s major ski resorts and abundant other recreational opportunities, water for non-consumptive uses is also crucial to a large part of the economy. And it’s one reason people move to Colorado in the first place. “The West Slope is really the playground for the Front Range, especially the headwaters areas,” says Pokrandt. “Many people on the Front Range have come to understand that and understand what’s at stake.” q

H e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9


Yampa/White/Green Basin By Jayla Poppleton


Eric Wunrow

he Yampa, White and Green rivers in northwestern Colorado are part of the Upper Colorado River system. The Yampa and White’s headwaters are in Colorado, while the Green makes a brief detour south from Wyoming, through Dinosaur National Monument where it is joined by the Yampa, then flows west into Utah. The Yampa is the least managed river in Colorado. As Kent Vertrees, recreation representative to the roundtable and manager of Steamboat Powdercats, emphasizes, it’s one of the last opportunities in North America for people to recreate on a wild river with its natural hydrograph still intact. The small-scale diversions that do exist on the Yampa primarily serve irrigators. There are also some coal mines and a large power plant with water rights on the river. Because the basin is not growing as rapidly as some areas of the state, the roundtable is concerned it may not get a fair amount of water under the state’s Colorado River Compact appropriation. To thoroughly assess its future water needs, the roundtable is working on several studies. One, the energy study, is a joint effort with the Colorado Basin Roundtable to assess potential water demand associated with future energy development, likely the biggest issue facing both basins. According to the study’s first phase,

FOSSILS AND A FREE-FLOWING RIVER—Pictured as it winds through Dinosaur National Monument, the Yampa River’s flows still fluctuate dramatically, making it both enjoyable for boaters and ecologically valuable.


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completed in September 2008, energy development, particularly oil shale, could require hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water. Though oil shale is speculative, energy companies own significant conditional water rights on the Colorado and White Rivers. (See Colorado Basin Roundtable, page 30.) In addition, Shell Oil filed for a new water right on the Yampa in December 2008 in an ongoing effort to line up the water it would need to move forward. But, as Dan Birch, co-chair of the joint Yampa/Colorado roundtables’ energy subcommittee, says “If [oil shale development] is going to happen, it’s out of our control. All we’re doing is promoting good water planning.” Birch, who is also deputy general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and one of the roundtable’s representatives to the Interbasin Compact Committee, says the roundtable will advocate for a multiple-use project that would benefit existing uses if energy companies pursue a storage project. The roundtable also commissioned a study to assess its agricultural water needs. Jeff Comstock, roundtable member and natural resources director for Moffat County, says the study, which should be completed by December 2009, will address existing shortages in addition to demand for possible future irrigated acreages. It will also assess the probable impacts of climate change and energy development on ag water. T. Wright Dickinson, a rancher on the Green River and a governor’s appointee to the IBCC, says it’s important to identify additional water for the ag sector now, before the state uses its final compact allocation. At that point, he says the focus of providing more water to accommodate growth would shift to ag water conversions. According to Dickinson, conversion of ag lands could have unintended consequences on late season flows that could impact other uses, including low flow targets for endangered fish. Geoff Blakeslee, the roundtable’s environmental representative and Colorado Water Conservation Board member, worked with Vertrees on the roundtable’s non-consumptive needs assessment. Blakeslee says the river’s free-flowing character has sustained significant ecological features. As the Yampa River Project director for The Nature Conservancy, Blakeslee is currently engaged in protecting a globally rare riparian forest along the river. Recreational uses on the basin’s rivers are also diverse. And a stretch of the

Yampa through Little Yampa, Juniper and Cross Mountain canyons is being considered for wild and scenic designation; currently, only the Cache la Poudre River in the South Platte Basin has been given such distinction. Both non-consumptive uses and future agricultural and energy needs will be weighed when the basin considers cooperating with any possible transbasin diversions to the East Slope. Delegates from the roundtable met with the South Platte Basin Roundtable to discuss the latter’s water needs in addition to a potential pumpback project on the Yampa. The Yampa Pumpback, studied by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, would take 250,000 acre feet of water from the lower Yampa, just upstream of Maybell, and pump it 200 miles east. A second proposed pumpback project would transport a similar quantity of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in northeastern Utah, through pipelines across southern Wyoming, to the Front Range. Though the roundtable hasn’t taken a position on the projects, members are concerned. For one, the Flaming Gorge pumpback may be able to claim a priority date from the 1950s. All of the Yampa’s major projects have a later date. If a compact call is issued on the Colorado River by the lower basin states, “we would be curtailed, and those new projects would be allowed to continue,” explains Tom Sharp, chair of the roundtable and attorney for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. “We don’t like that at all.” Sharp says the pumpbacks could also endanger a programmatic biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement gives water users assurance that existing uses will continue and states the basin can develop another 50,000 acre feet without harming endangered fish. The basin would like to reserve the right to develop that water itself. The Yampa Canyon run through Dinosaur National Monument, which Vertrees says is one of the top ten overnight rafting destinations in North America, is also downstream of Maybell. Taking 250,000 acre feet out of the river at Maybell could be detrimental to the recreational industry there. “I just hope we can do our best to identify the most logical and sensitive options to manage environmental and recreational needs with future water development in the state,” says Vertrees. “Maybe we’ll recognize that we should just leave the Yampa alone.” q H e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9

“If [oil shale development] is going to happen, it’s out of our control. All we’re doing is promoting good water planning.” —Dan Birch

Conversion of ag lands could have unintended consequences on late season flows that could impact other uses. —T. Wright Dickinson 33

A LONG VIEW—IBCC representatives and CWCB staff sit in the round at the IBCC’s March 2009 meeting. Take a closer look at this panoramic shot and listen to IBCC members speak out about the issues and the process at www.cfwe.org. Photo by Kevin Moloney.

Whose plan is it anyway? Perhaps the state should take the lead in water planning. Maybe it should maintain a supportive role. What will it take to ensure water for all? By Allen Best

When it comes to water, Colorado has a long tradition of local planning. Communities, working individually and sometimes regionally, have managed to secure adequate water supplies—for the most part. But the state’s system of prior appropriation has also led communities into competition with one another. And not everyone feels like a winner. Those who are new to the game or have interests in the non-traditional uses of water bear a hefty handicap. How can they eke their way into a system where most of the water is already allocated? Other questions, too, beg for answers. How can the state ensure water for its growing population centers while protecting basins of origin? Who should take the reins? Circumstances today are much different than when Front Range purveyors first began importing West Slope water. There are no “easy” projects. Little water remains unallocated in the Colorado River Basin; by some estimates no more than 300,000 to 500,000 acre feet, if that. Most of that is near the Utah border, hundreds of miles from the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains, where demand is highest. The state’s remaining river basins—the North Platte, South Platte, Arkansas and Rio Grande—are overappropriated. And, based on the State Demography Office’s model, Colorado’s population may double in 40 years. For decades there have been calls for something definitive, a clear route forward, maybe even a comprehensive, statewide plan for water allocation. In 1974, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation published such a document, “Water for Tomorrow: Colorado State Water Plan.” But the USBR was talking about water planning as if the state’s execu34

tive branch had the authority to make decisions about who gets water, remembers Bill McDonald, currently USBR’s acting commissioner but director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board from 1979 to 1990. Instead, Colorado’s executive branch has no such power. According to McDonald, Colorado already had a plan—for better or worse—and that was the prior appropriation doctrine in tandem with the public and private sectors’ activity seeking federally-funded projects through the USBR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The CWCB’s role, at least during McDonald’s tenure, was to take the feasible USBR projects and get them built. Because there was never enough money to go around, it was a matter of the state agency deciding where to throw its weight. Immediately prior to becoming the CWCB’s director, McDonald worked with Denver Water’s Chips Barry—at the time, from inside the Department of Natural

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Resources, during Harris Sherman’s first post as director—on a state plan that was never completed. Their Colorado Water Study’s draft report, dated 1981, sketched a picture of the economics tied to different water uses and explored legal and institutional changes to Colorado water law’s existing framework that might accommodate public interest values yet unaddressed by the prior appropriation doctrine. The report quietly died on the shelf due to lack of “traction,” recalls McDonald. Barry says the state wasn’t ready for it at the time. Coloradans then, as today, were fractured over visions for the future. Russell George grew up on the western side of the Continental Divide, one of those clearly defined fracture lines. His family’s farm was along the Colorado River, near Rifle. He learned early about the abstractions of water. “About the first lesson I got from my father was about water rights,” says George, who later became a water lawyer. As a legislator for eight years, George hoped to leave a lasting mark in the realm of water, but failed. In 2004, he saw his chance. By then DNR director, he had been reading “Silver Fox of the Rockies,” Daniel Tyler’s biography of Delph Carpenter, the father of the Colorado River Compact. Carpenter, George believed, had been prescient. California by the 1920s was starting to grow rapidly. Carpenter thought Colorado and the other upper basin states—Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico—needed time to develop their water resources. To protect themselves, they needed interstate compacts that would apportion some water for future development outside the prior appropriation system. George began to wonder: What if Colorado’s major basins did something similar? He envisioned negotiations like those of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin who met in 1922 in Santa Fe, N.M., to hammer out the terms of the Colorado River Compact. In essence, he foresaw the mechanism to achieve what amounts to a statewide water planning process, if not a state water plan per se. “It’s a necessity,” says George of

statewide planning. “We have areas of Colorado, heavily populated areas, that are running out of water, and all of us—all of us—have everything to lose by not solving that. We need to recognize that all are adversely affected when any other part fails.” Then-Gov. Bill Owens supported the idea. “I think it has always bothered him that we had these wars, especially across the Continental Divide, and he was very much a one-state governor,” says George, now executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. In 2005, the Legislature also approved the concept. The law he helped devise, the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act, or HB 05-1177, created nine roundtables organized by river basins. Crucial to the success of these roundtables, as George saw it, was broad representation. “You can’t just start from the top and do statewide water planning, because there are too many suspicions. The power is spread unevenly,” says George. “But when you do it our way, by starting from the ground up, you at least have the prospect of being able to come to the table where everyone is equal.” The legislation also established a statewide group, the Interbasin Compact Committee, which has created some confusion. After all, the state already has a statewide water-planning agency, the CWCB. Although that board is smaller, representation is also intended to be diverse. The difference from the IBCC, say agency staff members, is that the CWCB’s powers are more technical and advisory. Their ability to execute water projects is tightly circumscribed. The IBCC, on the other hand, is meant to facilitate conversations between basins and help the roundtables negotiate interbasin compacts. Some old perceptions about the CWCB’s priorities have resurfaced. “People think we have an agenda somewhere,” says Jennifer Gimbel, director of the CWCB. That is not the case, insists Dan McAuliffe, the agency’s deputy director. “Please remember, we can’t force anyone. If you want real authority, H e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9

STATE SUPPORT—Gimbel and McAuliffe, director and deputy director of the CWCB, say the agency plays a supporting role to local water planning efforts.

“We have areas of Colorado, heavily populated areas, that are running out of water, and all of us—all of us—have everything to lose by not solving that.” —Russell George 35

“Business as usual means a continued dry-up of agriculture, and that’s not a future anybody desires.” —Peter Nichols


you have to look elsewhere.” The CWCB’s job, they say, is to assist with local projects, but not to prioritize them. There is money, yes, allocated through the Legislature to be distributed by the CWCB for projects, but allocation depends upon local consensus. The state’s only real power, says Gimbel, is in “forcing the conversation.” Nearly four years into the process and reports are mixed. Certainly much has been accomplished in the basin roundtables, although the IBCC has been a bit sluggish in some people’s view. Rep. Kathleen Curry from Gunnison County was skeptical and still is. “I voted no on the legislation, because I felt that we didn’t need another bureaucracy and another bunch of meetings, and the people involved in the process don’t have authority to do much,” she says. She does, however, see some value in what they’re doing: “It doesn’t hurt to understand your own basin.” This, she believes, can lead to a more informed discussion both within the basin, but also in basin-to-basin conversations. The roundtables have not yet parted the waters. Skepticism remains. So does defensiveness. Attendance has dropped off in places. To the annoyance of those waiting for silver bullets, particularly major reservoirs or perhaps one of the big straws from the West Slope, nothing of the sort has emerged. George concedes that the roundtables have yet to achieve any significant cross-basin conversations. “Some,” he adds, “but it’s only been three or four years at most. Not much time in the water business. But they’re still working at it. That’s a measure of success right there.” However slowly they’re occurring, the conversations could not come at a more critical time. A current study by the CWCB will get a firmer thumb on how much water, if any, Colorado even has available for further development under the Colorado River Compact. (See A Numbers Game, page 11.) Climate change may further reduce water availability. And a scaled-up oil shale industry on the West Slope—should a host of maybes become sure things—could conceivably use up the potential balance of Colorado River water.

All the moving parts—continued population growth, ramped-up energy production and climate change—point toward accelerated shifts of water from agricultural to urban allocations. “Business as usual means a continued dry-up of agriculture, and that’s not a future anybody desires,” says Peter Nichols, attorney and member of the Metro Roundtable. “It’s inevitable,” says George. “It’s the free market. It isn’t best to be sacrificing one of our primary industries, especially our food production. But in the end, it is what will happen.” Forestalling that inevitable future may be possible if decisive actions are taken now. Sherman, successor to George at DNR as well as predecessor from 1974 to 1980, points to the need for creativity in reducing the impact of water transfers through alternative methods such as rotational fallowing. Sherman also sees demand-side management as a valuable tool. “We need to be mindful that the way we grow along the Front Range will affect agriculture. The way we grow will affect transbasin diversions. We’re all in this together,” he says. What is needed, he believes, is improved dialogue between water providers and land-use decisionmakers to promote higher-density development, which is associated with lower per capita water use. (See water use graphic, page 10.) However, it may take the Legislature to step in and pave the way for some of these changes. Key problems moving forward, many people feel, are certain statutes in water law, coupled with the IBCC’s lack of authority. The true authority lies not in the roundtables, but in the Legislature and governor and, even more fundamentally, in the Colorado Constitution. “A statewide plan on top of the appropriation system is not a good fit, and we would have to change how we do business, which is entrenched in the law and in the [state] Constitution,” says Curry. And just what is meant in House Bill 1177 about creating compacts between basins, she says, “hasn’t been fully vetted and discussed.” John McClow, general counsel for the

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Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, challenges whether Carpenter’s Colorado River Compact can ever serve as a model within Colorado. “There is a fatal flaw in that reasoning, in that no roundtable, or in fact, no person who sits on these roundtables, has any authority to bind anybody to anything.” Denver-based water attorney David Robbins further questions the utility of intrastate compacts. “Fundamentally, I can’t figure out what people think they’re going to do under these theoretical compacts, because in almost every instance there is no more unappropriated water.” If the Legislature wants to see intrastate compacts, he says, it must provide the framework and explain how existing water rights are to be constrained. History shows the Colorado Legislature will make changes—such as the 1973 instream flow law and 2001 provision for recreational in-channel diversions – to accommodate greater public utility of the water when the people demand it. Still, how far the state’s arm should extend in implementing water supply solutions is debatable. Bart Miller, water program director for Western Resource Advocates, sees an expanded role by the state in recognizing the value of water left in lakes, streams, and wetlands. “It’s imperative that the state further find a way to recognize those non-consumptive uses of water,” he says. Private enterprise does not easily fill that role, he adds. And while the state for three decades has been filing for instream flows, Miller sees the need for more than just enough water to keep the backs of the fish wet. Spring flushing flows, in particular, are necessary, he says. Miller also sees a place for state government in stepped-up funding to assist in the voluntary donation of water rights for instream flows. And he believes the state should engage in the federal environmental review of water storage projects to speak on behalf of protecting instream flows. Melinda Kassen, managing director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project, is leery of the state building and controlling water projects. She cites

the public lashing during the 2003 election against Referendum A, which would have provided $2 billion for unspecified water projects, but also points to the broad objection to a proposal called Policy 18, which would give the CWCB the ability to own water rights in projects it finances. Currently, the agency can only own instream flow rights. It’s true that sometimes change can occur in a hurry, and some wondered whether the drought of 2002 would provide that spur in Colorado water matters. But a state water plan would essentially have to overturn 148 years of water law dating back to territorial days and, just as importantly, the principle of water rights as private property. And it would have to be flexible enough to anticipate changes. After all, a plan adopted in 2000 would already look dramatically old-fashioned today. Much less was known then about climate change, let alone accepted. Tying land-use decisions much more closely to water planning as recommended by Sherman could be extremely difficult. Though the Colorado Legislature has made a start in this direction, it has traditionally been reluctant to infringe upon local autonomy. In matters of both land and water, there is always a delicate balance between individual and community rights. Changes usually come in increments. But those changes do occur, and the greatest power of the state is, as Gimbel says, that of “forcing the conversation.” Such conversations can at times seem exceedingly slow. The first calls for an Interstate 70–type of highway dissolving the barrier of the Continental Divide came in the 1920s. The first bore at the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel wasn’t completed until 1973. Similarly, with light rail in metropolitan Denver, the process of approval for what is now FasTracks took the better part of 20 years—with the pudding still not delivered even yet. So it is with the Interbasin Compact Process. The conversations take a while. But without extended conversations, there can be nothing resembling a consensus. Call that what you want. Some might call it a plan. q H e a d w at e r s | S p r i n g 2 0 0 9

“It’s imperative that the state further find a way to recognize those non-consumptive uses of water.” —Bart Miller


The Ditch Project is a multimedia celebration of the 150th anniversary of Boulder County’s ditches. The show will run from May 9 to July 8 at the Boulder Public Library and from May 15 to June 19 at The Dairy Center for the Arts. Ditch-inspired sculptures will also be on display in Boulder’s Central Park from May through July. An opening reception will be held at each venue on May 15. In addition, The Ditch Project is hosting a free Ditch Symposium at the Boulder Public Library auditorium on Saturday, May 16 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The symposium is sponsored by the Boulder Watershed Initiative and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Speakers will cover ditch-related topics ranging from history and ecology to literature and art to climate change. The first 50 registrants for the symposium will get a free boxed lunch, courtesy of the Foundation. Seating is limited. Call 303-449-7532 to reserve. For a detailed symposium schedule and further information about The Ditch Project visit www.ditchproject.org.

1580 Logan St., Suite 410 • Denver, CO 80203

Michael Lewis

150 Years of Ditches: Boulder’s Constructed Landscape

2009 CFWE Rio Grande Basin Tour Please plan to join the Foundation for our 2009 Tour of the Rio Grande Basin, June 18-19, 2009. Staff is creating a 2.5 day educational adventure that will focus on the challenges and successes of water management and use in the San Luis Valley. Details and registration are available at www.cfwe.org.

Profile for Water Education Colorado

Spring 2009 Water Planning  

This issue of Headwaters magazine chronicles how Colorado has entered into the most comprehensive and public dialogue ever attempted about t...

Spring 2009 Water Planning  

This issue of Headwaters magazine chronicles how Colorado has entered into the most comprehensive and public dialogue ever attempted about t...

Profile for cfwe